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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ask the Matriarch - Honoring the Wishes of the Dead as well as the Living

Our question this week derives from our call to be stewards of the mysteries of life and death.
A woman in the parish is dying - she does not want a service or any "fuss" -- what to do?
A man died and told the family he did not want a funeral -- but the family is wanting to have something -- what to do?

This week several of our matriarchs share their experiences and insights.

Ann writes:

This is one of those issues I always hope to address before the person dies. The dying woman may be open to hearing that others need a time to get together and mourn her passing – that it is only partly about her and her needs at this point. It is a ministry she can perform even in weakness and death. She gets the last word on this as far as formal church services go. People can do what they need to do for themselves or gathered. If it is about control when her life is out of control – it might be presented as a way to set up some parameters for whatever people decide to do.

As for the man who died. Maybe the family can have a party on his birthday when it comes around again. Celebrating and sharing pictures and stories – laughing and crying. The Greek Orthodox have a ceremony a 40 days after a death – a church I attended in Boston used to have it as part of coffee hour after church.
What other non-service suggestions are there?

jledmiston, from A Church for Starving Artists reminds us that we can help clarify some of these questions while our parishioners are still alive:

This is a common experience in the church, I think. We lost a beloved 81 year old who also did not want "anything" which she happened to document one day sitting right next to me as we were completing Funeral Plans together using the forms our church suggests people to complete in the event of our deaths -- she did hers and I did mine. When she stated her wishes out loud, I said that she and I both knew that her friends would still want to have something to honor her - and we did.

We followed all her wishes in terms of cremation, burial, memorial donations, etc. But she couldn't stop us from gathering to thank God for her life. This was going to happen no matter what - even if it happened in someone's living room. When someone says this, I would simply say something like, "But people love you very much and will probably get together to remember what you've meant to them. That is a gift you can give to them."

Karen Sapio shares her insights as to what motivates a person to reject a funeral as well as the disconnect that we in the church can have with those who are not as familiar with church practice:

In my experience when someone says they do not want a funeral what they mean is they do not want an announced-in-the-paper, chancel-choked-with-flowers, procession-with-hearse-across-town, somber-organ-music, long-winded eulogy event. I think you and the family can come up with a creative alternative that honors the family's desire for a helpful/healing rite of passage as well as the deceased desire NOT to have a funeral straight out of central casting. The key is to have a good conversation about what everyone actually wants or doesn't want.

Recently I had a family who said they did not want a funeral, just a graveside service. So I arrived with at the specified hour ready to do my usual 10-15 minute committal service. But the family had arrived ready for each member to say something, for the grandchildren to sing a song, and for several recorded songs to be played on a portable CD player. We were there for over an hour in the BLAZING heat. Too late I figured out that they DID, want a funeral. They just didn't want it in the church. In their minds, "in the church" meant funeral and outside at the cemetery meant "not a funeral". We exist in such a churchy world that we think that since WE know what we mean by funeral, memorial service, graveside, etc. that those words mean the same thing to everyone. Not so.

Earthchick reminds us that we are called to be sensitive to the needs of those who remain:

Though I try to honor the wishes of the deceased whenever possible, my belief is that a funeral is for those left behind, not for the one gone. If the family wants/needs a funeral, I always do it. If they need help accepting that they are doing something their loved one didn't want, I help them with their feelings and work towards helping them claim what they need for their own healing. I like to find out, if I can, why the person did not want a service - it can tell me a lot about the person that may be helpful in ministering to the family. If it is the public nature of a funeral that the deceased did not want, I would talk with the family about doing something private, just for them. But ultimately, I would go with what they wanted. My first priority in the face of death is to minister to those in grief.

Finally, from a friend of the Matriarchs, here is a letter written to the congregation in the face of the death of a beloved member who wanted no services held, followed by her personal reflection on the event:

She wrote to the congregation…

I've been thinking a lot about the plan to have a service of remembrance for xxx. She had directed that no service be held and that her ashes be spread at sea. My pastoral concern was for people in the congregation who felt a need to honor her life and to have some closure. I've heard from those who say I should go ahead with the service and from those who say I should not.

This morning I decided that it is important to honor her wishes. Although I may strongly disagree, it's not my place nor my right to go against her instructions. If I were to go ahead with a service, it would also say to others in the parish that I could not be trusted to follow their final wishes. As your pastor, it's crucial that you trust me to do what's important for you after you die.

For those who wanted a service, I hope you can find another way to honor her life. For the parish community, the altar flowers will be given in her memory on a Sunday in September. Based on the conversations I'd had with her, I think that would meet with her approval.

Thanks for understanding, and if you have any questions or concerns, I hope you'll talk with me.

your pastor

She reflects on the experience…
For the family I would just suggest a small gathering at their home.

I think those that make these kind of insistences for no service are thinking only of themselves -- it often comes down to a fear of death or a fear that no one will attend or a feeling that a service puts too much attention on the deceased. What they don't understand is that the service really isn't about the person who died; it's about everyone left behind. We're going to be discussion this issue in the parish this fall. Ultimately and for even the nicest person who might die, to insist on no service is really selfish.

What might you offer from your wells of experience and insight?

May you live this day and every day in God's amazing grace+


(image courrtesy of


  1. I have only once had someone say that their parent did not want anything. The ashes were being interred in another state by a sibling, though, and there was no way for my parishioner to have closure. I suggested that while I was sorry his father had died asking for no service, anything we did would be done for him and his family and friends. He agreed that it would, indeed, help him deal with his grief and we had a very simple service including Eucharist.
    Dying is a singular event. No matter how many people are with you, none of them are going to die with you - usually. So I agree that it is wise to help the dying to understand that funerals are for the living, perhaps ask them to consider a funeral that helped them grieve. Of course, if their experiences have all been awful - a friend went to her grandfather's funeral and there was an altar call and threats of damnation - then a little more education about what a funeral is supposed to be like is in order.

  2. A friend's father died and I had been close to the family for years. He hadn't wanted a funeral and they weren't close to the church at that time. I suggested an idea adapted from my colleague's experience. A family dinner (they had one every Wednesday night) where everyone told one story about "Bubba/grandad". It turned out to be a very special evening, one he would have enjoyed.

  3. When someone is nearing death but still able to have a conversation, and has expressed a wish not to have a funeral, I try to ask them what specifically they object to, and gently suggest that it might be important for family and friends to have a gathering. I often find that people either a.) "don't want to make a fuss," or b.) are afraid no one will come, or c.) have been to some really bad funerals and don't want that repeated. Often, not always, they can acknowledge that some kind of ritual is important and will be okay with that.

    When the death has happened and you're beyond conversation with the person, I ask the family what they think their loved one objected to about funerals. Did they not want to be eulogized? Do they hate being the center of attention? Were they just unfamiliar with funerals and didn't know where to start? Is there some horrible family history they don't want dragged out into the open? That can be a really interesting conversation, for one, and it can help shape a gathering or ritual which is meaningful for the family but tries to honor the deceased person's wish not to have a "funeral" (Karen's comments in the post about "central casting" are great).

    After a situation like that in the congregation, I had a series of adult forums on funeral planning and encouraged people to talk with families - it got some helpful stuff out in the air. Much easier to have these discussions before all the emotions around a specific death are part of it.

  4. In my family, the tradition had been graveside services, which in the South can happen year-round. When my grandmother, a pillar of her Methodist church, died, the people in her congregation did not feel satisfied by the simple service she had directed. Mostly, they wanted to sing, because she had loved singing. My parents lived out of town; they gave permission for the service, but chose not to attend. My grandmother's dear cousins, members of that church, represented the family.
    Now, I would have loved to be there. I lived further away, and my parents made a point of not telling me about the service so they could hold to the idea of respecting her wishes by not having the immediate family go, but also allowing the church family to do what would be helpful.
    I remember being thoroughly irritated at the time, but looking back 20+ years later, I can see what their reasoning was.

  5. I agree with so many things that have been said and encourage heavy use of the phrase, "What does it look like to you?" When people say they don't want something (for weddings or funerals), it usually means they DO want something- it's just different from what they've seen before. Or they very intentionally do NOT want something they've previously experienced. Asking what they'd like to see or what would cause them to "roll over" can give way to a larger conversation that can eventually shape the culture and expectations of your congregation and of the families involved.

  6. This is one reason why I so strongly encourage pre-planning in my congregation! We have a dinner/gathering where we discuss why it's important and why there is a need for the living to grieve and mourn. It encourages people to think about what they do and don't like for funerals. (We Presbys are notorious for not wanting to 'make a fuss.') It's not something people like to talk about, but if they avoid it now, it can end up being too late for them to have a say when the need arises.
    I do like some of the ideas that have been shared for when the person is just adamant that no service be held. Thanks!

  7. My mother, not being part of any faith tradition, specifically directed that she wanted to be cremated and with no service of any kind. As a family, we gathered to scatter her ashes all along the Oregon coast, but that's still not much in the way of closure or remembering. So I asked my church in Atlanta if they would hold a memorial service during the weekend I was in town and they did. It was after Sunday worship. I don't think the rest of my family even knows about it, but it was remarkably healing for me. I also think that I have moved through and recovered from grief much better than the rest of my family who had nothing and who still won't talk about mom at all. I think if someone had talked with her ahead of time (someone in this case likely being me....) then she might have come around to the idea of something non-traditional--a party with great food and CampFireGirls songs and stories, for instance. alas...everyone is left floundering because they have no framework to share memories and stories and tears...there was nothing for them. That's still sad, three years later.

  8. This is helpful... thanks everyone.

    busily taking notes...

  9. oh boy...what I'm most aware of in my experience of this turn of phrase is ANGER...It was my mother's refrain, "I certainly don't want a funeral. Your FATHER, now, he thinks he needs a funeral, but I certainly don't want a funeral" -- and then the kicker -- "you can just throw me in a ditch."
    Finally one of her grandsons gave her the business about "it's not about you, Granmom, it's about the ones left behind." And then she consented to have a service BUT NOT IN A CHURCH, in a funeral home. She "hated and despised" funeral directors and said so at every opportunity. And she went to church every Sunday that she was able.
    Go figure. Be my guests.
    I can only think that the experience of comfort, solace, hope, joy in worship was so entirely foreign to her that she couldn't even imagine resorting to a church, any church, for any of those things.
    I think margaret and shalom make good points though about "previous bad experience." And people not understanding what the funeral is for.
    I had a parishioner...terminally ill...who decided she didn't want a funeral "because there's nothing to say about me" -- this after she'd attended a memorial service for a man who had had a very active and powerful public much so that there were, appropriately, FOUR eulogies. All of them crisp, professional, cogent, brief, and without overlap or repetition.
    But could I coax her to see that the funeral is about what Jesus did? No, ma'am.
    It makes me so sad. And it stiffens my resolve to preach the Resurrection and resurrected glory without hesitation or mitigation or "well it's a metaphor, isn't it" of any kind!

  10. One thing I havent heard addressed here - an in-her-80's woman who died last winter did not want a funeral because she did not want her friends to have to overextend themselves by trying to get out in the winter weather. It was sort of an extension of the "dont want to make a fuss" thing.

    It was very unsettling, though, for all the reasons everyone has already said, and after some confusion on the part of her friends who kept looking for the memorial notice in the paper and not seeing it, and lots of conversation with peoplefrom both church and wider community we ended up having a few small gatherings that honored her anyway. It was a good learning experience about how trying "not to make a fuss" actually makes MORE fuss in the end. I'm trying to be really intentional with people now, about having something.

    Could it be that some people dont like other people to talk about them and that's why they resist the idea?

  11. And what about people who DO want a funeral but for whatever reason their kids don't have one? I felt so badly for a woman who had died after years in a nursing home--her daughter brought her ashes to the church for interment, handed them to me and left. This woman had a detailed funeral plan on file and there were people in the congregation who remembered her and who would've come.

    I don't know what the family history was, but it felt very sad to me. I did committal prayers for her, but it didn't feel like a enough.


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