Naming the shadows: Truth-telling at funerals

January 24, 2011

I've seen it often: a beloved church member dies and at the funeral the eulogies go on and on, with the bereaved ones helping to anoint the saint. But then the eulogizers go home, and the bereaved are left behind to find a foothold for grieving this acclaimed someone—and to deal with the reality that the life of the one who died contained shadows as well as sunshine.

We often avoid naming people's shadows, not only in funerals but also in church. We flinch from our sins, our frailties and our messes. We choose the fantasy of eternal sunshine over the richness of naming the truth, in all its fierce and sometimes frightening wildness.

After my mother died, I spoke of her wild spirit as I thanked those who had loved her through difficult final weeks. At times the ferocity that had made her grand also made her a challenge to those who knew her. One courageous respondent spoke up, using humor that wrapped my mother in tenderness, and described her encounters with my mother's shadows. Some of those listening seemed bewildered; they hadn't associated Betty D. King, aka "The Queen," with a shadow side.

I think we should more regularly name shadows, not to run people down but because the truth matters—the truth that none of us are saints.

At funerals we're tempted to avoid all talk of human flaws and frailties. We talk instead about a loved one who lived so well that little forgiveness was needed. Deep down we believe that what counts is keeping up appearances and suppressing shadows. But when we do, we miss the opportunity to know and testify to the blessed freedom of being forgiven. If we really believed that beyond all of the shadows is the embrace of our God, wouldn't we yearn to tell about our loved ones in all their dappled, spotted, shadowed glory?

This was brought home to me by the head nurse at my mother's assisted living unit. With wisdom and grace Valda walked with my mother through her final days. After my mother died, Valda phoned me to share that during those rough days she had been reminded of a haunting line from "Better Than a Hallelujah?" by Sarah Hart and Chapin Hartford: "Beautiful the mess we are."

"I sang that song in church," she told me. "I said, 'Brethren by denomination and Christian by belief we have long suffered in silence when life happens, not wanting to question God's almighty will or ability to know what is best for us. But the Bible is full of individuals who were messes—David, Saul who became Paul, the woman at the well—individuals whom God used in spite of their messy lives. We are all messes in some way. We fail miserably. But God still sees us as beautiful.'"

This is why we must name shadows: by naming them we can turn them from secrets to be hidden into treasures, messes made beautiful.

Of course, life is messier even than ruminations on our messes. Do we, at funerals or in congregational life, really want to put out all the dirty laundry to enable God's power to turn it lovely? I don't believe that we should publicly flagellate ourselves or others. But if we truly believe that shadows can hold treasure as well as curse, then we should be looking for ways to treat ourselves and each other that provide a gracious space for shadows.

This sensitivity may lead us, carefully and in appropriate settings, to celebrate not only how we have managed to be conventionally good but also how God's grace has been present even—and sometimes especially—in our flaws.

I have no formula for doing this, but I can think of one example. Among the worst tragedies I faced as pastor was the death of a young adult from a drug overdose on the very morning she was slated to pick up her mom—who was in a treatment center for mental health and addictions challenges. I had talked with Jessica on the telephone about the trauma of her mom's departure from the home they shared, but I'd never met her. She told me how proud she herself was at having remained clean of drugs for months.

Then I met Jessica. At the funeral home beside a weeping Debbie (on a temporary discharge from the treatment center), I saw how young and lovely Jessica was, and how premature yet final her death was.

At the memorial service we could have celebrated that Jessica was a beautiful woman taken in the prime of life and stopped there. But Debbie wanted the truth named. We agreed that I'd name the elephant: however hard Jessica had tried to stay clean, the drugs had worked even harder. I also reminded everyone how greatly she had been loved—by us, by Debbie, by God, by her many friends.

Afterward, people who'd heard about Jessica told me or her mom stories of their own wounds and addictions. They were haunted by Jessica's fate and the reality that shadows can kill. They also felt deepened trust that amid and through shadows we can be loved—and that Jessica's funeral offered them grace, hope for a decrease in social stigma and inspiration to move toward transformation.

We need the fierce love of Jesus. Aiming to need little in the way of forgiveness is not good enough. Seeking a spotless Christian walk or church is not good enough. Petty perfectionism yields only pinched living.

My own Anabaptist tradition stresses right living as a Jesus passion. But it fades too easily into the quest to be forgiven little.

People yearn for a Christianity that names the truth, that majors in authenticity, that grasps the power of inverting our values so we admire the one forgiven much and worry about the one who's forgiven little. We crave a church that knows how to train us in the way we should go and how to restore us when we depart from it; that calls us to be better than we start out being and to make beautiful the messes we become; that grasps the gift of seeing shadows as sources not so much of shame as of our capacity to love; and that shapes us to hear Jesus say, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."



I've had several funerals where people had clearly strayed from the path of faithfulness and right living. My own feeling is that there is a better time than at the actual funeral service to address issues of morality and faithfulness to God. The gospel is, in my opinion, always a balancing act of grace and obedience. But the final words reflecting on a person's life is not necessarily the time to veer to far from the message of grace.



Truth telling

I concur with the author. The truth liberates and gives credibility to the gospel message we proclaim. Without the truth being spoken, who needs the gospel?

Letter from Rabbi Yehiel Poupko

In light of Michael A. King’s “Naming the shadows: Truth-telling at funerals” (Feb. 8), let me offer a Jewish perspective. In the Jewish tradition there are two kinds of persons--those animated with life and those no longer animated with life. All human beings, as creations of God, must be honored and treated with dignity and respect. The task of treating the lifeless human being with dignity and respect is made more difficult because that person cannot speak for himself or herself.

For this reason, according to Jewish law, one may not eat or drink in the presence of the lifeless; to do so is to mock the dead who cannot eat or drink. One may talk in the presence of the lifeless person only about matters that pertain to the honor and dignity of that person, namely, the funeral service and other arrangements--and surely words of prayer and lament.

One may not speak ill of the dead not because the lifeless person was perfect when alive (no one on all the earth is without sin), but because he or she cannot respond. The lifeless person cannot take criticism and learn from it, cannot respond and explain his or her behavior or present heretofore unknown facts that might refute the criticism or place it in a different perspective. Living humans have the obligation to stand for the honor and the dignity of the lifeless one who is now mute.

It is not the purpose of a eulogy to provide an evaluation of someone’s life as if it were an exit interview in the workplace or a support-group activity. It is not the purpose of a eulogy for human beings, who are themselves imperfect, to stand before others in the presence of the silent, defenseless, lifeless person and talk negatively about or render judgment upon that person. That is the task of God.

How do children provide the honor due a parent when that parent did some really horrible things? In the Jewish tradition, the family gathers in the seques­tered setting of the home for seven days after burial so that together, possibly with the help of a few others, they can fashion a useful, though incomplete, understanding of the deceased. The funeral service as a public, religious event is intended to pay honor and dignity due to all persons created in the image of God. Its purpose is to draw a positive lesson or two from the de­ceased’s life that others can use and to express and deepen our sense of the sanctity of life itself. To do anything else is presumptuous.

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko
Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
Chicago, Ill.

Letter from Karl R. Kraft

Shortly after the holidays I was asked to conduct the funeral of a woman who had been a member of a church I previously served. It was known that she had had many emotional problems and had tried to take her life several times in the past. Close friends told me that there was good reason to believe she had succeeded this time. 

In an effort to “name the shadow” at the service, I began to talk about the necessity of facing the tragedy with courage. The widowed husband stopped me in mid-sentence: “Who told you that? Where did you get that from?” In an effort to keep my composure, I assured him and the gathering that my intent was to help everyone move past the pain of loss by facing the circumstance head-on, and so I continued with what I had prepared.

In speaking with some of the woman’s friends following the service I got the unmistakable feeling that while I had shed light on the elephant in the room, it probably hadn’t accomplished what I was after.
I have lived these past several weeks with the conviction that, regardless of my intention, my approach was totally inappropriate. The husband called me to task on his Facebook page. I offered a sincere apology for causing pain to him and his family, but not for what I said, which I still believe to be the truth.

Michael King’s article has put an entirely new light on my experience. While I’m willing to confess to an insensitivity to the people present at the funeral service and to admit that I might have approached the circumstances better, at least I know that my heart was leading me in the right direction.

Karl R. Kraft
Glassboro, N.J.

Letter from James Benedict

King correctly points out that eulogies that focus entirely on the positive often come off as phony and as such reflect poorly on the pastor and the church. However, as he admits, when it comes to speaking of the “shadow side” of the deceased, it is not easy to figure out how to do so. The eulogy is an opportunity to address both the emotional needs of those who grieve and the theological questions raised by life and death. In addition, it is an occasion for making clear how the story of this particular person is part of the larger story of what God has done, is doing and yet will do. 

This certainly requires telling the truth, but there are many ways to do so. Listening closely to the loved ones of the deceased can often yield clues to what needs saying and even how to say it. Just as one must take care not to “pretend that the deceased had no need of forgiveness,” one must also take care not to be too harsh. The advice of poet Emily Dickinson comes to mind:  “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.”

James Benedict
Union Bridge, Md.

Michael A. King responds

Karl R. Kraft grasps the intent of my comments. He also heartrendingly highlights the dangers of naming elephants in rooms and perhaps points us to the im­portance of seeking to honor the limits
of loved ones’ abilities to experience elephant-naming as life-giving.

I see much to ponder in Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s conviction that the purpose of the eulogy “is to draw a positive lesson or two from the deceased’s life that others can use.” I agree--while continuing to hope that we might include a grace-filled and delicate naming of shadows amid our understanding of what makes for positive lessons.

James Benedict integrates the various paths we can take at funerals with his apt citing of Dickinson. This makes space for the possibility that not to engage the elephant at all can cheapen positive lessons. But to name the elephant outright can dishonor the dead, who, as Rabbi Poupko observes, “must be honored and treated with dignity and respect.” To tell the truth slant may involve alluding obliquely yet still meaningfully to shadows. This can be a way to honor the dead and respect the living while simultaneously conveying that the good life is not so much the perfect one as the life lived in truth and with integrity, its beauty often shining forth from grace-wrapped intertwining of successes and messes.

Letter from Phillip Bush

I found the responses (March 22) to Michael A. King’s “Naming the shadows” (Feb. 8) interesting but lacking in imagination and in some cases sensitivity. There is middle ground between telling a sweet fairy tale with little relation to reality and being blunt in a way that brings pain to the family of the deceased.

A few years ago I was asked to preside at a funeral for a man I did not know. Members of the family told me about his lifelong struggle with alcoholism. Then they said, “Don’t pretend he was perfect.”
Taking my cue from them, I said something like, “Bill had his struggles. You all know about them. That shouldn’t surprise us, because we all struggle.” I went on to talk about the grace of God that is extended to Bill and to all of us. After the funeral the family and friends commented about how helpful it was to hear the truth.

That experience changed my ap­proach. Today, as I listen to the family before the funeral, I ask questions. And I say something like, “If you don’t mind, I will mention that.” The negatives are certainly part of our story. But if they are going to be part of the eulogy, it is best to make sure that the family understands what will be said ahead of time.

Phillip Bush
Alexandria, Va.