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FUNERAL HUMOR

July 10, 2016

My friend, Father Rob Brown, and I recently conducted the memorial service for Joe Crook. Prior to the celebration of Joe’s life I said to the family, “I can’t imagine having a memorial for Joe without humor. He enjoyed a good story and a good laugh as much as anyone.”

Some find humor at a funeral to be inappropriate. I personally think humor in the face of death is a tender mercy and a gentle blessing. Folks who have experienced deep grief know that comic relief is a welcome shift. If all we do is cry, bereavement quickly becomes tedious.

Of course, there are times when death by violence renders humor completely misplaced. The deaths across this country and around the world this week are tragic examples.

Recently, a church member sent an e-mail containing tombstone inscriptions collected from old cemeteries. One of my favorites from the extensive list was this one.

 

From East Dalhousie Cemetery, Nova Scotia

Here lies Ezekial Aikle

Age 102.

Only the Good Die Young

 

After more than fifty years of pastoral ministry, I have accumulated an interesting collection of graveyard stories.

Every mortician and every pastor knows that funerals are fraught with opportunities for things to go awry. A funeral is a somber time, a time to attend to the needs of the bereaved, a time to be serious, reverent, and, well, funereal. Still, the final service for a dearly departed loved one can be the occasion for humor.

The late Reverend Grady Nutt, a friend from my seminary days, was dubbed by the television program Hee-Haw as the Prime Minister of Humor. Grady was a master storyteller whose favorite targets were other preachers, men and women of the cloth. He told the story about a young pastor who conducted his first graveside funeral during a Texas rainstorm. Things went pretty well in spite of the steady downpour until the closing prayer. The novice minister was speaking loudly to the Almighty when he suddenly fell silent. After a few moments, some of the gathered faithful cautiously opened their eyes. The young cleric had vanished from sight. It seems he had stepped too close to the muddy grave.  He slid, feet first, under the suspended casket into the vault below.

Even a seasoned pastor can make embarrassing mistakes at funerals. A dear friend and colleague had to do two funerals in the same day, each for a fine man in his congregation. One of the deceased had been an outstanding high school and college athlete who spent most of life as a coach. The other had been a more reticent, studious young man who had become successful in the financial world. The first was an avid sports fan; the second had little interest in sports. In the second funeral of the day, my colleague started eulogizing the wrong man. He waxed eloquent about the athletic prowess of a man who had never participated in organized sports. When the pastor caught himself, realizing his mistake, he apologized and added, “He always wished he could have been a great athlete.”

A recent seminary graduate, newly ordained, accepted his first pastorate in a rural area of Upstate South Carolina. Soon after his arrival at the church, he was asked to conduct a funeral for an elderly man. The man was a longtime member of the church but had been unable to attend services in several years because of ill health. The family explained that the funeral service was to be graveside at the family cemetery located at the old home place in southern Union County. The service was to be brief and would be followed by a covered dish dinner provided by the good folks at a nearby church.

The young pastor was nervous as he prepared for his first funeral. He rehearsed the service in his mind as he followed a set of complicated directions to the remote home. He became hopelessly lost on the back roads of Union County near Sumter National Forest.

Finally, almost by accident, he came upon an old house. As he turned down the long driveway, he could see two men under the shade of a large oak tree. The men appeared to be gravediggers. One stood beside a backhoe; the other leaned on a shovel.

The young pastor approached the two men. Though his dark suit and the Bible in his hand gave him away, he still felt the need to explain that he was a pastor.

“Is the family here?” the minister inquired.

“Nope, just left.”

“I see,” the pastor said, embarrassed that he was so tardy.

“Please give me a few minutes,” he requested.

With that, the pastor moved to freshly dug hole, noticing that the concrete vault was already closed. He read a passage of scripture. Though he dispensed with his prepared sermon, he offered a lengthy prayer. He thanked the men for their patience and drove on to the church for the covered dish dinner.

As the young pastor took his leave, the man next to the backhoe lit a cigarette. He turned to the man leaning on the shovel and said, “I’ve been in this business for thirty years. This is the first time I have ever seen anybody read the Bible and pray over a septic tank!”

Mr. Jack was my father-in-law.  He was a storyteller, with a quick wit and a wry smile that endeared him to almost everyone.  His speech was as colorful as my grandfather’s, salted with Southern witticisms and profanity.  Shortly before his death from congestive heart failure, Mr. Jack and I had a private conversation.  His acceptance of his impending death was evident.  “This path that I’m on is getting mighty narrow.  I don’t believe I’m going to be able to turn around this time.”

He asked me to conduct his funeral.  He said, “Kirk, you’re going to have to look out for Lib (his wife, my mother-in-law).  She’s going to need help, and I know I can count on you.”

I felt the burden of that responsibility, but I would not have had it any other way.  He told me that he had written two letters to the family.  One was to be read immediately after his death, before arrangements were made for his funeral.  The other letter was to be read immediately after his funeral.  I would find both letters inside a ledger in the top right hand drawer of his rolltop desk.

Two weeks later Mr. Jack died. The family gathered the morning after his death, and I read the first letter aloud.  He had included so much of himself, so much humor, that we laughed together for nearly an hour.  His directions on finding pallbearers were especially funny.  “Now that I’m gone,” he wrote, “they may all refuse to attend.  But they all owe me in one way or another.”

He went on to say, “Kirk, I know you’re a Baptist preacher, but you may have to give them bourbon whiskey if they’re to be pallbearers. They’ll do better if they’re liquored up.”

With that first letter, Mr. Jack had established an attitude of joy for his own funeral. The men agreed to be pallbearers, and I didn’t have to get them liquored up. They took care of that themselves.

The family went to the local mortuary in the small town where Clare’s parents lived to make the funeral arrangements for Mr. Jack.  We selected a polished pine casket because he had enjoyed woodworking. The funeral director then showed us a selection of vaults.

“We have three to choose from,” he said in a somber tone.

“What is the difference?” I inquired.

Pointing to the top one he said, “This is our top-of-the-line model.” He paused and added, “It comes with a lifetime guarantee.”

I stared at him in amazement. “Whose lifetime are we talking about?”

He stammered, “I don’t really know.”

“How can a vault have a lifetime guarantee?”

“No one has ever asked that.  That’s just what they told me to say.”

We purchased the bottom-of-the-line model.

You can imagine the laughter in Mr. Jack’s service when I told the story of the vault selection.  You may also be able to imagine the chagrin of the funeral director.

Following the drive back from the burial in the country churchyard, I again gathered the family to read the second letter.  We could hardy wait.  It was a sweet, touching letter about his love for each of us.  He included a section on how he had tried to provide for his wife and his children.  Then this line, “Lib, I believe there will be enough for you to live out your days in contentment and comfort.  You will not be able to live in the lap of luxury, and there is certainly not enough for you to have a live-in boyfriend.  If you take up with somebody, I may have to come back and straighten things out.”

The wisdom of the Bible says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” Laughter is a natural tranquilizer, and, as far as I can tell, it has no adverse side effects. There is, as Scripture affirms, “a time to weep and a time to laugh.”

In my experience, grief is a time for both.

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