Stories of life and death

Posted Aug 15, 2013 | Center for Pastoral Excellence


By Shawnthea Monroe

Aunt Sharon's funeral flowers by Carol Browne, on FlickrGiven a choice between conducting a wedding or a funeral, I’ll take the funeral every time. Don’t misunderstand me: I love seeing two well-suited people make a life-long pledge to one another, but there is something raw and holy about a funeral. Death has the power to strip away the pretense and illusions to which we cling in life, leaving us breathless and panting for comfort. Set me in the midst of a grieving family and I know exactly what I am supposed to do.

It’s all about the stories.

When I meet with a family to plan a service, I begin with a simple question, “Tell me about your mother (father, sister, brother).” It may take a little prompting, but usually the stories pour forth. There are stories of family vacations, of academic achievements, of holiday traditions, of career accomplishments. Sometimes the stories sound like a comedy; sometimes, they are tragic. There are love stories, adventure tales, and narratives about suffering and loss. There are even stories of resentment and estrangement. Yet no matter how trivial or serious or sad, I treat each story as a gift because every fragment is part of the larger narrative.

I listen to their stories until I feel like I know the person who has died. Then, and only then, can I tell another story.

I once heard Barbara Lundblad describe a preacher’s task as, “introducing the text of real life to the text of holy scripture in order to facilitate a conversation.” This is a brilliant description of what we all strive to do Sunday after Sunday, but when the text of real life has ended in death, the preacher’s task is more demanding. At such times, my job is not to facilitate a conversation, but to tell one person’s story in the context of retelling the Gospel story. I remind the grieving faithful of what they know to be true: we do not grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Rather, our story is a beautiful narrative of death and resurrection which assures us of God’s enduring love.

Lately, though, many of the memorial services I’ve planned are for people who have been life-long church members … but none of their children are religious. If current sociological trends continue, this scenario will soon be the norm rather than the exception. These well-meaning adult children come to my office unsure of how to proceed yet anxious to “get it right.” Often times they haven’t been part of a church for years, and questions about hymns and scripture readings make them nervous and uncomfortable. These dear spiritual-but-not-religious people say things like, “I want this to be a celebration of mom’s life, not about her death,” as if the Christian rite had nothing to do with life. They put together slide shows and poster boards. They ask if “I Did It My Way” was ever arranged for the organ. They stand up and tell funny jokes during the Words of Remembrance. Yet nothing can fill the void or dull the pain. 

What they need is a better story. 

I’m convinced that the pain of many people stems from only knowing half of the narrative—and that’s the half that moves from life to death. End of story. Faced with such sorrow and grief, the best comfort I can offer is to tell the rest of the story—the part that moves from death to life.

I think Jesus is like the ultimate editor, the one who untangles our messy narratives, recasts our characters, and improves our broken prose. Jesus sees what we meant to say, and removes dead-end plots until our narrative line is clear and all our conflicts are resolved. But the best part is that Jesus has written the end of all our stories, turning tragedy into triumph and sorrow into joy.

And that is the best story of all.

The image displayed in this post is "Aunt Sharon's funeral flowers by Carol Browne, on Flickr" and is used in accordance with Creative Commons licensing.

The Rev. Dr. Shawnthea Monroe is the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church UCC, Shaker Heights, Ohio. Shawnthea is the co-author of Living Christianity: A Pastoral Theology for Today (Fortress 2009), and when she’s not preaching or teaching, she is in the garden.

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