Two American Funerals


Now almost six years into my retirement from being a full-time pastor, what do I miss most about that wonderful calling? It’s not easy to give just one item. But the answer I most give, when asked by others or myself, is funerals. By that, I mean more than just the funeral event, though I certainly mean that, too. I miss being called to be with dear people when their loved one is moving close to death. I miss walking with the grieving family in planning the funeral, talking about the grieving process, selecting scriptures and hymns, and sitting in silence. I miss standing at a graveside and saying those final, solemn words of blessing and committal. And I miss the funeral services. A funeral service for a believer is a powerful witness to many realities, the resurrection of Jesus at the head of the list. Every funeral service is a reality check for the living.


In my retirement, I still get to participate in these life passages on occasion, but not with the frequency I once did, and not as the called pastor I once was. Now when my presence is requested, I consider it a high honor.


Hence, when appropriate, I go to funerals and sometimes I watch funerals of national significance on television. I still brief the obituaries in our local newspaper and the New York Times every day. On August 31 and September, 1 I watched the funerals of two great Americans: Aretha Franklin and John McCain.


In life and in their farewell services, Franklin and McCain were vastly different. One black, one white. One female, one male. One an entertainer, one a politician. One from a family headed by a pastor, one from a two-generation Navy family. Their services reflected some of those differences.


The funeral service for Aretha was in the sanctuary in Detroit where her father had once pastored. John had two services, one in a Baptist church in Phoenix and one, the one I focus on here, in the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C. Aretha’s lasted over seven hours (I didn’t watch all of it, but much of it). John’s lasted about two and a half hours. Both had many eulogists. Both had glorious music, but oh so different. One reflected the black Christian tradition and one reflected the mostly white Episcopal tradition. Not only in length, the services were very different in just about every way. Yet both were genuine, both were real and fitting.


One had a former president of the United States speak, the other had two former presidents speak and another present. Of note is that McCain personally invited the two men that beat him in his two tries to serve in the highest office in the land to speak. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama spoke with dignity and grace. I find it encouraging to watch former presidents of both parties and their spouses to be so at ease together on occasions that transcend partisan politics. The cameras caught Bush handing a mint or candy to Michelle Obama in a smooth no-look way, then gently breaking into a grin as she received it in a no-look way.


As I preached in a local church yesterday, I felt as if it were the third worship service I had attended in the same number of days, one in Detroit, one in Washington, D. C., and one in Rochester. One was black Baptist, one was national Episcopalian, and one was Presbyterian. I appreciated the unique authenticity of each tradition. In the Presbyterian one, there was a goodbye to a dear couple that, after 21 years in that congregation, are moving to Florida. It wasn’t a funeral, but it was a kind of farewell, with some laugher, some tears, and touching words of tribute and celebration.


Increasingly, Americans are choosing to stay away from churches. I understand some of the reasons—some of those reasons are solid and have my respect—but I long for those people to return or come for the first time. To come before there is a funeral that demands their attention. To come and find life in the midst of broken and flawed people.


The three services of the weekend past, two for great Americans and one at a local church, remind me of what gathered worship means to me. Farewell and Godspeed, Queen Aretha and Senator McCain. Thanks for your considerable contributions to the common good of our nation and our world. And safe traveling to your new home in Florida, Lew and Judy. Thanks for your service to Parkminster Church.


And soon I begin preparing to preach in another gathering of saints on Sunday coming.

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