At the risk of sounding creepy, I like the way we Mennonites do funerals. Specifically, I like the way people act during the funerals and for a few hours after funerals. If only we could stay forever in a funeral state of mind.
We don’t speak ill of the guest of honour, which is an improvement on the way we sometimes speak about the living. This rule applies in both the formal eulogy during the service and the informal eulogies that arise naturally during the after-service lunch in the church hall, when tables of mourners reflect generously about the deceased over coffee and platz.
For example, mourners will praise the dear departed for using her gift of music to sing to the Lord, but tactfully avoid mentioning that many people felt she enjoyed the limelight too much for her own good, and, truth be known, she could get a bit sulky if she wasn’t given frequent solos.
We forgive her trespasses. Yes, the belated forgiveness may be of little use to the silenced singer, but it’s good for the rest of us to forgive, even posthumously. It’s also heart-warming how the qualities we celebrate at funerals are never secular values such as money, power and status. She was rich in both wealth and physical beauty, but we ignore such shallow attributes. Instead, we focus on the higher realm. She and her husband adopted a special-needs child, and she was an enthusiastic leader of home Bible-study groups.
At funerals, our minds sometimes wander and we find ourselves wondering what people will say about us when it’s our turn in the box. What material will we provide our eulogizers? Such a self-inventory is a wonderful result of the funeral state of mind because we discover, perhaps to our surprise, that anticipating our death has shifted our life priorities, at least temporarily. The promotion we were jockeying for, the 15 pounds we were trying to lose, the irritation we felt at our teenager’s sassy backtalk, all seem of small consequence. Instead, we feel a warm flush of unconditional love for God and other people, the glorious state that is so easy to prescribe but so hard to maintain. We feel like rushing out to help someone, anyone.
Our zeal to act with love comes at an ideal time because our funeral pews are filled with unchurched people, family and friends of the deceased who might never otherwise enter a sanctuary. When I suggest that funerals are an ideal time to evangelize our unchurched visitors, I don’t mean we should have altar calls, or corner them in the church foyer and demand to know: “Have you been saved?” But, after all, they came to our church. The corpse on display is a stark reminder that we’re all dying, it’s just a matter of when. The unchurched guests are likely pondering mortality, afterlife and their purpose on the planet. Evangelism opportunities don’t get more blatant.
The strangers are easy to spot when it’s our church because we know the faces of the usual congregants. Our evangelism challenge: do we connect with the visitors, or ignore them and stick close to the same church brother and sisters we speak to every Sunday?
My personal heroes are those church members who leave their comfort zones and welcome strangers with a connection that goes beyond a handshake. They approach visitors before and after funerals and inquire sensitively about their relationship with the deceased. At the post-funeral luncheon, they might forgo their place at a table with their church friends and instead sit with strangers, showing a sincere interest in the lives of the visitors and compassion for the loss of their loved one. This makes it likely that the strangers would leave our church warmed by the reflected love of God. They’ve experienced the funeral state of mind.
DeGurse lives in Winnipeg and is a member of Douglas Mennonite Church. He wants his gravestone to read: “Now the adventure begins!”