A Clergywoman's Graveside Lessons

Anytime I have to officiate at a funeral, I call or text my friend, Meredith.

I can trust her to say what I need to hear. I know that she will help me to focus on the most basic of commandments for a minster at a funeral. Her reply has been the same for the past ten years:

"Don't fall in the grave."

I need the reminder because I almost did fall in the grave nine years ago. Over 60 funerals later, Meredith and I still laugh at the memory.

One of the amazing things about many funerals, memorial services, and celebrations of life is how before the end of the day, there is laughter. Interspersed with the tears are humorous stories. The families find peace in recalling the good.

For the pastor, walking with God's children through these valleys can be overwhelming. We clergy take ourselves seriously in the midst of one of life's most serious moments. Yet, it is often at funerals that I, too, experience God's grace in remarkable ways--in unexpected laughter.

Here in the Easter season, where we celebrate Life conquering death, are five glorious mishaps that I experienced as a clergywoman, complete with "life lessons." I hope you will laugh with me, and I dedicate them to the memory of these five people who lived long, good lives, and now feast on their heavenly rewards.

1. *Almost* Falling In the Grave

It was my second funeral as a pastor, and everything with the service had gone beautifully. After everyone was settled at the graveside, I took my place at the casket's head, and once again, all went well. Birds sang as if on cue, and the sun shone at an angle that was not too bright but not too shadowed. I silently gave thanks, stood tall in my high heels, said "amen," and the funeral home director motioned for me to speak to the family.

He did not warn me of the bumpy ground underneath the green tarp.

My heel got stuck, and I lost my balance. I reached for the casket to break my fall, but my heel slipped further into the hole. I was then somehow halfway under the casket, face to face with the giant hole of earth under the casket. With the help of the deceased's grandson and the funeral home director, I was soon back on my feet. The birds were still singing, and the sun was still shining.

Life Lesson: Don't wear spiked high heels to the graveside. If you do fall, reach not for the flower spray but for the the handle that the pallbearers use. It's much sturdier and will likely keep you out of the grave yourself.

2. Riding in the Hearse

After a service at the church, we had to travel an hour to the community of Ebenezer for the burial. I asked the funeral home director if I could ride along, only to find out they were not taking a lead car. However, I could ride in the hearse if I'd like.

With a background in creative writing, how could I turn down the opportunity to ride in a hearse to a town called Ebenezer?

Mr. Smith, a long-time undertaker, was the driver. I sat in the passenger's seat and marveled at how comfortable it was. When we reached our turn off of the highway onto a two-lane, curvy road, Mr. Smith loudly asked: 

YOU DO KNOW WHERE WE'RE GOING, DON'T YOU?

My heart rate jumped.

"No, sir," I said. "That's why I rode with you. I don't know where Ebenezer is."

He was driving 70 miles per hour on the two-lane road. I held on to the seatbelt.

NO, I'VE NEVER BEEN TO EBENEZER BEFORE.

I reached for my fairly-new smartphone and opened the GPS feature. Only by the grace of God was the Methodist cemetery on the map, and I showed Mr. Smith. He grabbed the phone from me with one hand, the other on the steering wheel.

NOW ISN'T THAT SOMETHING? A MAP ON YOUR PHONE? TELL ME WHEN TO TURN!

He handed the phone back to me, and we reached the graveside. Afterwards, some church members who were behind us on the road approached me and said, "Do you want to ride back with us?" 

Life Lesson: No matter how comfortable the hearse is, the journey is only worth it if you have a map, a speed limit, and perhaps a hearing aid for the driver.

3. Searching for Kleenex in the Dark

Six months into my new pastorate, I had my first funeral at the church. There were no boxes of Kleenex on the pews for the family, I went to the custodian's closet. I assumed the door would stay open after I walked inside.

It didn't.

The door slammed shut, leaving me in darkness. My phone was in my pocket, so I pulled it out for a light.

Then I dropped it.

So I stuck my arms out in front of me and turned towards what I thought was the door. I placed my hands on the wall and searched for a switch or a knob but found only wall. Eventually I did find both, and light flooded the room. I searched for the kleenex.

There were none. 

Thankfully the door had not locked behind me, so I was able to get out. I found the office manager and asked where the tissues were in the custodian's closet. "Oh, we don't keep them in that closet. We keep them in this closet here in the office."

Life Lesson: Learn where your church stores tissues. Commit it to memory. And never assume the door will stay open behind you.

4. What Not to Wear to a Graveside

While some of my colleagues wear their robes to graveside services, I thought it would be too much trouble. I had always opted for something simple and professional--and cooler in the summer time. I had found a comfortable, plain skirt that seemed perfect and wore it to a graveside service. We began the liturgy, and the wind picked up. Only then did I think about the reason my new skirt was so comfortable: it was free-flowing and loose.

I continued with the liturgy, hoping that the wind would stay calm, but it was apparently too slow to carry my prayer to heaven. A gust of wind came through, lifting the skirt not only up but also over my Book of Worship. I quickly pushed it back down, freed the book, and bunched the ends of the skirt into one hand, holding the book with the other. The liturgy never stopped, and I officiated the rest of the service with my hair in my face and leaning to the left to hold the skirt down.

Life Lesson: Wear the robe. Just wear the robe and endure the sweat and get it dry-cleaned later. Also, carry a rubber band at all times for the hair.

5. Avoiding the Flirtatious Pallbearer (previously shared in blog post, "How Not to Get a Date")

The local funeral home had called and asked me to officiate at the service of someone who had lived out of town for many years. I knew nobody there, not even the pallbearers. As an organ recording of “Just As I Am” began playing, the funeral home directors rolled the casket into the chapel. The pallbearers were lined up two by two, awaiting their turn to enter. Robed with Bible in hand, I stood behind them, the end of this modest procession. The last pallbearer on the right turned to me and whispers, “So, um, what are you doing after?”

Life Lesson: Always arrive at the funeral with plans for afterwards. If you don't have plans, use your creative writing gifts to create them before last pallbearer on the right gets any ideas.

May you, too, experience God's unfailing grace in all of life's seasons, friends. Let us take heart that even in the midst of death, God offers us new life (and laughter) through Christ our Lord!

all good things to each of you,

Pastor Darian