Putting the fun in funerals

It probably will not surprise you that I'm about to highlight a story about funerals. As the child of a pastor and an active member of my current congregation, I love such stories. I know that funerals are a huge deal in the life of the church. Funerals get covered in the mainstream media fairly frequently. The deceased has to be unbelievably famous in order to get that coverage, but they are covered. But the typical funeral, the typical gathering of family and friends, is less likely to receive coverage -- particularly from the perspective of the survivors. This Wall Street Journal story "The Last Laugh" is a really interesting read about what is claimed to be a transformation of the eulogy. Let's give a taste of the piece:

Joseph McNeely Sr. recently stood before a gathering of 50 people--women in church hats, men with pocket squares--and described his father, Hubert Sr. "Daddy loved the ladies," he said. The crowd broke into laughter.

Hubert had died at the age of 90 days earlier. It was his funeral.

The eulogy has been undergoing a transformation. Kelsey Hubbard talks with Katherine Rosman about how many families are turning to humor and and an honest account of the deceased's life rather than strike a more traditional, religious tone.

A funeral is a solemn rite of passage, and since the days of ancient civilization, the eulogy has been a speech of good words for the dead.

That's changing, say funeral directors, clergy and theologians. Even amid tragedy, today's eulogy increasingly includes anecdotes that point to the deceased's foibles and quirks, offering a nuanced character sketch. "More often, people are saying, 'Let's be realistic about this person," says Hari P. Close, a funeral director who worked with the McNeely family.

Now, I do have some questions. A lot of questions. This whole practice is very foreign to my religious upbringing. Confessional Lutherans believe that a funeral is a worship service not terribly unlike any other worship service. And that means that we don't worship the person being buried but, rather, Jesus. This is how all Lutheran worship goes and it goes triple for a funeral because it's a great time to remind the deceased's parish, family and friends of what Jesus did for them.

But because Lutheran funerals are somewhat different from what I've experienced elsewhere, I can confidently state I've seen attempts at humor at other religious and secular send-offs for 30 years. I mean, I still shudder with absolute horror at the United Church of Christ pastor's attempts at humor at my grandmother's funeral. It actually worked in a way -- my fellow teenage cousins and I couldn't believe what a trainwreck of a funeral it was and we started laughing to ease the pain. Oh I wish I was joking. Later the piece just asserts that mourners are increasingly turning to friends and family for eulogies and that people are "less likely than ever to have personal relationships with members of the clergy." Is that true? I mean, it could be. But what's the objective basis for these claims?

As for an honest account of the deceased's life, I find that fascinating, too. Here's a sample of combining humor and honesty:

At the funeral, the younger Mr. McNeely praised his father as the doting dad of nine children. He raised six of them as a single parent in Washington D.C., he told the gathering. But that fact didn't fully capture Hubert. "He couldn't move his hands well at the end but if a pretty lady got close enough, he'd grab her," Mr. McNeely said in an interview.

But all I could think of when I read that anecdote was something a pastor once told me. He learned a valuable lesson in trying to give a nice brief eulogy of the deceased, about what a great man he was. A relative came to him later and mentioned that this "great man" had molested her in her youth. I mean, are we talking about harmless "grabbing" of ladies or what?

Nobody questions the lady-grabbing anecdote. On the other hand, here's a nice mention of some of the downsides:

Some funerals can get unwieldy and long with the rush of family to the podium. Also, the etiquette in some houses of worship makes it inappropriate for the secular or non-ordained to speak from the lecturn so they may address the gathering from elsewhere.

And moments of levity can shock, and even offend. If potential speakers wonder if a story is too honest or revealing for a eulogy, it is, funeral directors advise.

Some clergy say eulogies laced with humor can come at the expense of the religious significance of funeral services which traditionally weren't focused on individual loss but community piety. For example, the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer is an ode to God that never mentions someone has died. The funeral liturgy in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer didn't include a mention of the deceased's name until modern editions.

Today's funerals are shielding mourners from facing the sorrow of death, says theologian Thomas Long. "A good funeral is now marked by the level of laughter," he says, adding that non-clergy officiants are becoming "emcees."

The piece then gets back to some great examples of funny eulogies. I particularly liked the one regarding Duke University divinity school professor Lauren Winner's grandmother.

I'm all for more stories about death, dying, funerals, cemeteries and the like (here's something my husband wrote about cemeteries not so long ago). But from this outsider's perspective, I needed a bit more explanation of how we know these humorous eulogies are on the rise. Perhaps this is a hot new trend but I'd like to know more about how we know that.

Please respect our Commenting Policy