I beg to differ . . .
It has been said that death is not a laughing matter, but I beg to differ after nearly thirty years in the ministry. There is plenty of humor to find in death and I speak from experience.
As a minister one of the ministries that I perform are funerals. Over the years I have performed lots of funerals for members of the churches I served and for others in the communities where I lived. Most often these are not somber, sad affairs, but more often than not they are celebrations of the life of the deceased as blessings and gifts to those who are left mourning. Often there is laughter in the stories that are shared, mingled among the tears that are shed. I assure you that there is laughter associated with death.
Not all the laughter associated with death comes from the stories shared about the deceased . . . sometimes it comes from things that take place during the actual funeral or memorial service.
Years ago, I was approached by an elderly female member of the congregation I was serving as I walked through the kitchen during the funeral dinner. “Pastor,” said the little old lady, “the barn door is open.” I am not always the sharpest knife in the drawer and this was one of those occasions . . . I had no clue as to what she was talking about. Seeing the clueless look on my face she pointed down and proclaimed, “Your zipper is down!” Six shades of red later, the barn door was closed but not before those in the kitchen had a good laugh at my expense.
Now, I don’t know about other clergy, but I do not like having elderly female members of the church pointing out that I have left the “barn door open”. After zipping it up, all I could do is wonder how long the “barn door” had been open . . . since the beginning of the service . . . since saying grace before the dinner . . . only a couple of minutes? Who knew . . . I sure didn’t. All I could do was smile; pull the zipper up, and reply, “Hmmm, maybe that is why it felt so breezy up there in the pulpit.”
Following one service the committal service was to be held in a remote rural cemetery . . . a place that neither the funeral director, family, nor I knew of. We were given simple, basic directions that pretty much made no sense, but we took off anyways with plenty of time to spare in case we got lost. We got lost . . . and, we barely made it to the cemetery in time. So, there we were . . . cruising the back roads looking for a cemetery out in the middle of no where . . . twenty cars following a hearse around and around and around. Needless to say, after that adventure, I made sure that the funeral director always knew where we were going. Nothing worse than showing up late for a funeral . . . especially when you are the one in the hearse.
I have also experienced flat tires on the hearse going to the cemetery. I have encountered blizzards that had just me, the funeral director, and the gravedigger doing the committal in howling wind, below zero temperatures, and unrelenting snow . . . it is amazing how such weather can curtail a minister’s repertoire. I have had people show up at the wrong church. I have witnessed the pallbearers dropping the coffin. Locking keys in the hearse. Accidentally stepping too close to the coffin hole and slipping, nearly falling into the hole. These might not have been funny at the time, but looking back they make me smile and laugh now.
Then last week . . . I had a memorial service that will bring laughter for years to come. The service went well . . . lots of stories were shared about the deceased . . . rollicking hymns (favorites of the deceased) were sung . . . there were tears and laughter . . . and a choir member tried to set himself on fire by standing too close to a burning candle; but, overall, the service went well and the family was appreciative.
Things were going well as we all piled into our cars to head off to the veterans cemetery in another town. The weather was cooperating and we had plenty of time to get there . . . and, we did! All of us except the deceased . . . no one had remembered to bring the urn holding the cremains of the deceased. The urn and the remains of the deceased were still back at the church sitting on a table in the sanctuary. A rescue party was quickly sent off to retrieve the ashes (two of the congregation’s finest elders—one who was quite familiar with the state patrol in case they got pulled over speeding back to the church). Then someone cracked a joke, “Isn’t it just like Al to be late to his own funeral?” There was laughter in the acknowledgement . . . yeah, Al would have loved it.
Eventually the urn arrived . . . along with the snow and wind. But, the color guard was nowhere to be found. They were not only late, they were nowhere in the county. It seems that they had written down the wrong day and time for the committal service. Kind of tough to do a military service without the military’s representatives there to do their part. I thought about humming taps after the benediction, but I thought better of that . . . it was too cold. I stepped up, said a few words, and remarked that Al was probably having a good laugh at our expense . . . something, in life, he would never let us live down. I doubt if any of us will ever forget this adventure . . . so, in the end, Al won.
Death is not easy . . . I agree with that. At the same time, though, I cannot agree with there being no laughter in death. As sad as it was to gather together to celebrate, remember, and say goodbye to the deceased this past week, it was good to have the laughter. The laughter brought us all together . . . connected us . . . in a way that the formality of a funeral never could do. I am sure that God had a good laugh . . . sometimes we take this stuff too seriously and forget that it is all about relationships. Laughter creates relationships. Years from now we will all look back, smile, laugh, and remember not only that day, but the one who made it possible. Isn’t that the purpose of a memorial service . . . helping us to never forget?