Avoid A Funeral Standoff With Three Easy Questions

Avoid A Funeral Standoff With Three Easy Questions

Funerals can happen fast, and as the Lakewood, Colorado controversy shows, that can cause discomfort for families and congregations. Here’s how to prevent that.
Hans Fiene

If you are a typical five-year-old girl and are currently planning your dream wedding, please stop for a moment and plan your funeral first. Pause the debate on whether to have Queen Elsa or Rainbow Dash as your maid of honor and first figure out who will one day preach words of comfort over your lifeless carcass.

I know it sounds a bit morbid to encourage kindergarteners to contemplate their postmortem course of action, but, statistically speaking, it’s a better use of their time than wedding planning. If Time Magazine is right, only 75 percent of those five-year-old girls will turn into blushing brides one day. But 100 percent of them will eventually turn into dead people. If you don’t decide which venue you’d like to host your funeral before you die, that responsibility will fall to your loved ones with the additional challenge of having to see through the muck of their sorrow and figure out if that venue is comfortable celebrating your life the way you would have desired. Since your family would only have about seventy-two hours to answer that question, it’s quite possible for a lapse in communication to bring about an ugly situation like the recent one in Lakewood, Colorado, where Vanessa Collier’s funeral was cancelled just minutes before it was scheduled to start after the congregation hosting the funeral learned that she was a lesbian.

While Collier’s aborted funeral is certainly a sad story, it’s not terribly surprising. In the mournful rush to find a church building to celebrate her life, it appears that Collier’s family simply assumed that the parts of her life involving her lesbian spouse would be welcome, especially since they were renting the facility and providing their own pastor to conduct the service. New Hope Ministries, it also appears, assumed that those renting a church that opposes homosexuality wouldn’t display photos celebrating a gay marriage in their sacred space. The assumptions on both ends are relatively understandable, but had Collier taken the time while still living to determine whether New Hope was an appropriate venue for her funeral, this last-minute collision of worldviews probably would have been avoided. So if you want to avoid a similar conflict erupting at your own funeral, whether you’re five years old or 50, sit down right now and answer the following questions:

1. Do You Want a Religious Funeral Service or a Secular One?

If you are a rather secular-minded person who, for example, thought it was adorable when a Beatles flash mob popped up in the “Love Actually” church wedding scene, it’s important to realize that you and religious people have fundamentally different views concerning the purpose of a sacred building. So with regard to your funeral, you believe that it’s perfectly reasonable to use a beautiful church as a set piece in the deity-free production celebrating your life. Religious people, however, believe that their church building belongs to God and that everything taking place in that house of worship must therefore honor Him. This is why many churches will not permit various not-terribly-honorable-to-God requests that people may have for funerals that take place within their walls.

Secular institutions that seek to make a profit by burying or celebrating the dead, on the other hand, are usually unencumbered by such a sacred conscience, and are therefore better equipped to carry out funerals that wouldn’t fit within a church. So if your dream funeral includes having your ashes loaded into shotgun shells and blasted into the air while an Elvis impersonator recites Vogon poetry, it’s probably best to have a secular facility host the event. While the local funeral home may not be as beautiful as the nearby cathedral, this is a small sacrifice to make to ensure that a priest doesn’t call the cops the second your pallbearers start brandishing their Winchesters.

2. Do You Believe the Stuff That’s Taught in the Church You’ve Selected?

If you are a person of faith who would like to have a religious funeral in a church, it’s important to consider whether the faith in your heart is compatible with the faith taught within the walls of the building you’ve selected. No matter how beautiful you may find a sanctuary, the people who built that sanctuary and regularly gather in it probably find their doctrine even more beautiful and won’t want to see it sullied by a funeral that insists God has spoken words they believe He didn’t.

So if you want to have a funeral that says God approved of your gay marriage in a church that says God rejects gay marriage, you should probably keep looking for another venue. It shouldn’t be too hard to find one that will prevent your nephew Kaden from threatening to glitter-bomb a Romans 1-confessing pastor 20 minutes into your wake. After all, plenty of churches would love to celebrate the aspects of your life that orthodox Christianity won’t. In fact, this is pretty much the only reason Unitarians exist. So don’t hesitate to give them a call and set things up if that’s the group of believers who believe most similarly to you.

3. Do You Belong to a Church?

Do you have a congregation where you’ve regularly gathered to hear that death cannot claim you because it’s been defeated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that your sins will not prevent you from inheriting eternal life because they’ve been drowned in the blood of the Lamb, that the sickness and disease that drain the life from your body will never be able to lay a finger on you again on the day when the Son of God returns in glory, shatters your grave into a thousand pieces, and delivers your resurrected flesh into the loving arms of your Father? Yeah, you should probably just have your funeral there, then.

Answer these three questions and the most important piece of your funeral planning will be complete. Granted, before you return to filing your taxes or watching the latest adventures of Princess Sophia the First, you’ll also want to figure out funeral details like appropriate photographs, music, and whether your cousin Merle can give a eulogy while clad in Nebraska Cornhusker apparel (hint: no). But as you’ve decided on the venue, all of these details will be much easier to figure out because a representative of that venue—pastor, priest, or otherwise—will be able to assist you in designing a funeral that pleases both you and God.

Hans Fiene is a Lutheran pastor in Illinois and the creator of Lutheran Satire, a series of comical videos intended to teach the Lutheran faith. Follow him on Twitter, @HansFiene.

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