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Resources

Pastoral Ministry in Death, Grief, and Funerals: A Process-Relational Guide

by Rick Marshall
Brea Congregational United Church of Christ
Brea, California

This is a collection of resources for those who deal with death and grief and are in a pastoring role, who are interested in using a process-relational theology as a framework for aid and comfort, and who need to organize a funeral service. This resource is based on my 24 years of ministry, and especially on my experience of pastoring those who have been in the grip of grief over the death of a loved one. I, too, am acquainted with grief. These resources are what I have found helpful for myself and in helping others in grief.

Why process-relational theology?

Life is, by its very nature, relational and dynamic; everything in the world is connected to everything else. A new paradigm has emerged over the past few decades, a shift in the way we understand the world—and God. The model is no longer one of substance and inert mass in motion like a big machine, with God on the outside of the world, intervening occasionally. The current view is that the world is a vibrating, pulsating web of energy and interrelatedness, with God involved in the unfolding of everything at every moment. Everything that happens in the world affects God and is taken into the Divine experience; what we do matters to God. The process of life unfolding involves receiving new possibilities for the present moment. Part of that process is the perpetual perishing of each moment of experience. Loss and death are so intertwined with life that we can’t conceive of one without the other. There is the real experience of the immediacy of the moment and how it emerges and fades, and then the rising of a new fresh moment, only to have that fade, and so on. How do we understand suffering, death and grief in light of this current view of the world and of God? The process-relational view accounts for how God is described in the Bible as more inter-relational and dynamic than tradition theology recognizes. The God of the Bible is highly relational.

We live in a world of external relations—tables and chairs and other people’s bodies and cars and buildings—but also of internal relations, which are, by nature, our inward experiences. Opening our “heart” and loving another person, for example, involves internal relations with that person. By loving another person, he or she becomes part of my own experience and I become part of their experience. For example, I am geographically a thousand miles from one of my daughters. We see each other occasionally and talk on the telephone, yet she is so much a part of my life that, even in her absence, she is present in my “heart.” I think about her and worry about her and have hopes and fears for her even during the times of physical separation. She has been, and will continue to be, in my heart since the day she was born. Someone can be in my heart since the moment I first met them, for example my wife, or my good friends. We build a history and memories together. It makes sense then that when someone we love dies, a piece of us dies with that person. Grief then can be complicated as our connection to the person who died changes. We change when a loved one changes. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians (12:26) “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” He is describing the church and its relationship to God in highly relational terms. He uses the metaphor of a body and the spirit that gives it life.

When the Bible says that God loves the world, God is, by the very nature of love, opening the divine “heart” to the world. God is affected in God’s own internal experience by what the world does from moment to moment. God responds to each of my moments by offering me possibilities relevant to what is emerging in my experience and, when I choose as I must, my choice is received into God’s own experience and so on, back and forth. God becomes part of me and I become part of God.

Notice the intentional use of the word “heart” in relation to love. It is obviously a metaphor to say that someone is in my heart. As is so often the case, we turn to poetic language and the use of metaphors to describe our internal experiences. Jesus often used such language to explain God’s relation to the world. When we say we are in God’s “hands”, or that we are in God’s “heart”, we are using poetic language and metaphors to describe our internal experiences. It is our belief that God is highly relational and that the Bible is the primary text for language and metaphors that are helpful in times of grief and loss. So a process-relational theology is best suited for dealing with matters of loss, death and grief, because it makes sense of our experience, it is effective, and it is biblical.

The role of death in the experience of life

The experiences of life and death are so interwoven that they we can’t think of one without thinking of the other. The rise of life in the present moment reaches satisfaction and then fades into the past almost immediately and becomes an influence for the next moment of life and so on. The experience of the vibrancy and immediacy of the present moment fades into the “dead” past. The rhythm of this “dance” between life and death is one of the most basic experiences of life. The idea of “perpetual perishing” infuses life with the constant fading of each moment into the past. Joy and sadness, then, become the warp and woof of conscious experience, which is not limited to human beings; it provides the pervasive structure of existence. All of experience then becomes a mixture of joy and grief, hope and despair. Also, in this view, we become part of one another. When we love someone, they become part of us and we become part of them. So when a loved one dies, part of us dies with him or her.

The ebb and flow of life and death is the crucible of creative transformation. Life is infused with a dull background of the grief of loss. This is where we begin to understand how to deal with those who are experiencing overwhelming loss, such as the death of a loved one. By the time we experience an overwhelming lose, we are already familiar with the landscape of loss because we have been experiencing it all along.

Creative transformation is possible at a time of acute awareness of the reality of death in our personal lives. We are forced to adapt to an imposed new reality: continuing life without a loved one. This is the point where a pastor can work with the family, knowing that the process of death can become an occasion for transformation.

When both of my parents died within 5 weeks of each other recently, and then the ensuing loss of our family home, it felt like a major earthquake had just rocked my world, and only in the aftermath can I go in to assess the damage. While the earthquake was happening, all I could do was to hang on until it passed. Assessing the damage, sorting through the wreckage, and rebuilding, is the work of grief. For those of us who live in Southern California, we are aware of the possibility of a major earthquake. We have earthquake preparedness exercises and public officials who try to raise awareness. But nothing can sufficiently prepare us for an actual major earthquake. The question then becomes, how can we survive the Big One? A similar scenario took place in my family with the death of my parents. We knew my parents were getting fragile and we did what we could to anticipate their deaths. But their actual deaths brought surprising wreckage, and more, that we couldn’t have possibly anticipate beforehand. Grief is a crucible, a place of intense emotional heat that burns away all of the usual support systems. Our normal coping skills are inadequate. How can anyone be adequately prepared for the death of a loved one? It is especially difficult with the death of a child while a parent is still living, no matter the age of the child.

For those who minister to those facing loss, caregivers must be centered in their own life and well grounded in their own experience of loss to be able to simply sit with someone in despair. To witness the raw woundedness of a mother who has just lost a child, or the mate whose husband or wife of many years has died, requires a level of personal strength in the caregiver that goes beyond the normal limits of human experience.

The pastoral role in response to death and grief

When a pastor is invited into the process of a grieving family. These are suggested phases of dealing with those who have experienced a deep loss.

  • First word of the loss. Contact the family soon and let them know you are with them. Make an appointment to see them in person. Simply be with the family without imposing. Pastoral presence is crucial at this point. Prayers can be offered together for the loved one who has just died.
  • The interview to plan a funeral service. A few days after the death and before the funeral, sit down with family members and close friends to talk about the one who has died. Two purposes are at work for the caregiver. One is to get information about the one who has died and to plan a funeral. The other purpose is to give family and close friends the opportunity to talk informally and freely about the one who has died. This is often as important for the family as the funeral service.
  • The funeral service. Clarify roles with the family. They must make plans for the funeral service and a reception if one is to follow. The caregiver, if he or she is to officiate at the funeral, can talk about speaking publicly for the family and to facilitate the process of the funeral service itself. The family members’ and friends’ proper role is to be grievers. If the officiant did not know the person, the point can be made briefly that sometimes not knowing the deceased gives the officiant the emotional room to speak on behalf of the family.
  • Aftercare. If there is a grief support group, invite family members and close friends. If not, speak with the family at intervals after the funeral. This is the part of the grieving process when the issue of transformation can emerge. How has life changed in light of this death?

A few observations about the role of pastor or caregiver. The person of the caregiver is the greatest instrument available when being with someone else in their grief, and yet, the caregiver must stay out of the grievers’ way. Be quietly present, while allowing the other to fully express their grief. Second, do not take anything personally that the grieving one does. For example, when I arrived at the house of a church family whose husband and father had just hanged himself in the garage, the wife threw a Bible at me and yelled “Where is God now?” I had worked with the family when they tried grappling with his deep depression. I gave her a hug and she collapsed into tears. The third observation is simple: don’t be afraid of strong emotions. Be open, be present, do not make judgments on feelings. Being with someone in deep grief gives the fullest opportunity for the ministry of presence. A fourth observation: words have power, but not in a direct way. Saying the wrong thing can complicate the hurt the one in grief feels. Fifth, resist the urge to correct a griever’s statements about God. Every once in awhile, a positive statement about God can be helpful. For example, someone might say, “God took my loved one because God thought it best for him or her.” A caregiver might say something like, “It might be that God wanted your loved one to live a full life here with you, and this death is loss for you and for God.”

What to say in the presence of someone grieving
Very little. Being fully present in the moment, practicing the “ministry of presence,” is most helpful.

What not to say
“It’s God’s will.”
“God took the loved one because God needed him or her.”
“He or she is in a better place” (which might be true, but is probably not helpful at this point).
“I understand what your are going through.” Even though death in universal, the experience of loss is highly individual.

There are many examples of what not to say or do.

When invited into someone’s experience of grief, the caregiver is on holy ground. Treating the one in grief with compassion and respect is the primary moral guide. It is a sacred opportunity to mediate the presence of God as the caregiver guides someone through the process of remembering their loved one.

Using biblical language to help express grief and loss

When in the presence of someone who is experiencing deep grief over a loss, the caregiver is at ground-zero in a world that has been shattered and will probably never be the same. It is the first order of business for the caregiver to simply be present, to not be afraid in the face of grief, and to provide the language to name despair, fear, relief, guilt, anxiety, shame, love. There is deep hurt, fear and despair, but there is also the seed of profound transformation that has potential. When we are overwhelmed with grief of a loss, we find the limits of language very quickly. What words can adequately express the deepest connections with another person over a long period of time who is no longer with us? (A “new normal” will be reached at some point in the future, but this is not an issue now. A grief support group will be helpful in the process of moving toward a new normal.)

The caregiver can act as a steady guide to lead the family through the process of putting words, music, and images to their feelings. This is the purpose of the service, to use language, music, and images to give public form and content to the reality of the loss. I find that the language of the Bible often gives us words for such events, while, at the same time, acknowledging that language is limited in expressing such deep feelings surrounding loss (or love, for that matter). For example, I often use the following passage from the book of Job at the beginning of a funeral service to not only center myself, but to help center those who are attending the funeral service.

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all the terrible losses that had come upon him, they came each from his own place. They made an appointment together to come to console him and comfort him. And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept; and they tore their clothes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. Job 2:11-13

It is important to meet with family members in person in preparation for a service. I tell them that I will not pretend to know the person (if I don’t know them) who has just died, and even if I do know the person, I clarify my role as officiant by saying to the family that I am their spokesperson and I will do my best to represent the family in a public service. Our focus will be on the person who has died and it is not a place to try to save souls or make converts or express negative aspects of the person.

No matter how many people are in attendance, or what the circumstances of the service will be, it is a public event. As such, the funeral service has its own gravity. Words take on a different meaning. It is one thing to sit down with the family in a casual way to talk about the person to be remembered; it is very different in the context of a public event. This is where Bible passages come into play. Although words are inadequate expressions of grief, nevertheless, words must be used. What is most helpful to those grieving are biblical metaphors. This is why choosing a Bible text for the event is so important. It must not misrepresent the beliefs of the person that is being remembered and yet it must be helpful to those who are attending the service.

The funeral service

The purpose of the funeral service is to give structured expression for thoughts, feelings, memories, and expressions of grief and gratitude. Therefore the service should be highly personal in order to pay proper respect to adequately remember the person, while at the same time, being helpful to those in attendance.

Working with family dynamics
No family is perfect; every family is dysfunctional in its own way, some more so than others. Weddings and funerals can bring out the best and the worst in families. The caregiver might be required by family dynamics to be a mediator. I officiated at the funeral of a young man who was murdered. His father and mother were separated. The mother was there with her new boyfriend, and the father, while carrying his son’s casket to the grave, was verbally threatening to kill the new boy friend. His other son, who was also a pallbearer, calmed him down enough that the funeral concluded peacefully. Sometimes family dynamics can be dangerous and the officiant will need to be alert, along with the mortuary representatives, to keep some family members under control or to be ready to dial 911. Fortunately, this is rare.

Allowing others to speak
The officiant can strategize with the family if anyone other than the officiant should speak. Perhaps someone in the family or a close friend will give the eulogy, or the family may want only the officiant to speak about the loved one on their behalf. The officiant should be aware of the occasional person who might speak inappropriately or go on too long during the service. It will be the officiant’s job to monitor this part of the service and to be prepared to politely let the speaker know it’s time to finish in order to give others a chance to speak. Once during a service someone came to the microphone and talked about the deceased and, as she went on, it was clear that she had never met the person or knew him. She talked about herself. In that case, I put my hand gently on her shoulder and quietly told her she needed to finish. Fortunately, this too is rare.

Music
If the deceased person loved a particular kind of music, talk to the family about using one or two recorded or live songs and place them in appropriate places in the funeral service. I find that if there is a particular song has great power for the family, place it right after everyone has had their say. Music can support and give expression to strong feelings of love and grief.

The use of poetry
The officiant can ask the family if there is any poem they would like to have included, either printed in the memorial folder, or read during the service. The poetry should be in the service of appropriately remembering the deceased loved one.

Putting it all together

All the elements of the service should work together to remember the loved one, and to be helpful to those who will attend. A simple service is best. I have found that there is an emotional limit to what people can tolerate before they become saturated with words and emotions. From my experience, one hour is about the limit. The funeral service is an ordered process and can reflect the larger process that we all go through in the experience of remembrance and loss. The service can be reassuring that the chaos of death can become part of the process of living life.

Components of a funeral service

  • Welcome those who are present and state the reason of the gathering, even though, those attending know the reason for the event. Name the person the group is remembering. Stating the purpose of the gathering publicly gives weight to the event.
  • A simple statement about the reality of death and how such an event in our lives can trigger all kinds of emotions, thoughts and feelings. This can be a confusing time, and when someone we have known and loved dies, it can turn our world up-side-down. Name many of the feelings that might be present: sadness, guilt, relief, anger, thankfulness.
  • The reading of a brief passage from the Bible can be appropriate at this point to set the tone, for example, the passage from Job mentioned above.
  • A beginning prayer that acknowledges the death of the person and calls upon God to surround those in attendance with grace and peace. Name members of the family. Also, if the family has experienced the death of other family members, name them.
  • The sermon. Acknowledge that during such an event as this, our minds and feelings can be pulled in so many directions. It is helpful to use a passage from the Bible to focus our minds. Choose a passage that would be helpful to the family and friends without being dogmatic. (See below for the discussion of particular texts.) Don’t be afraid to speak directly about death; after all, it is what’s on everyones’ minds.
  • The eulogy. This is the time to talk about the person, to read letters and statements from family or friends, and to invite those who wish, to speak. The officiant should allow sufficient time for those who speak, but be prepared to help a speaker finish of they go on too long or their remarks become inappropriate. In this way, the officiant takes the burden of anxiety about this away from the family.
  • Call for a brief moment of silence during which people are invited to say goodbye to their loved one.
  • Read a brief Bible passage that expresses hope and trust in God.
  • The final prayer can summarize the sense of gratitude for the deceased person and thanksgiving to God for the gift of life that has been given to us. Thank God for the gift of life that comes to us in the form of family and friends, people who love and pray for us. A prayer can be good context to the fact that we are all creatures who have come from the earth, and we will all return to the earth.
  • Express thanks from the family for all those in attendance.
  • Benediction.
  • Graveside or committal service. If there is a graveside service following, this should be brief. It is a moment of committal of the loved one back to the earth and into God’s hands. A brief passage from the Bible could be read followed by a prayer of committal, followed by a benediction.

A sampling of Bible texts and how to use them

A Bible text can be used during the service as a vehicle of creative transformation. The funeral is, among many things, a teachable moment and is a rare opportunity to talk about life and death to people who are urgently looking for a word of hope. The Bible is a powerful resource for addressing issues of life and death.

Psalm 23 (Not printed here.)
As popular and as familiar as this poem is, by using it, the officiant runs the risk of the listeners not hearing it because of over-exposure. Yet, it is such a powerful expression of hope that it can be made vivid and powerful with a fresh reading. The psalm must be given a historical setting before it is read. A simple setting is best. Remind the listeners that when this poem was first written, people understood the world much differently than we do now. They had a vague sense of what we call a three-story universe. The heavens were often understood as a literal dome. The divine was beyond the dome, which is the true source of light. We inhabit the earth between the heavens and a vague sense of the underworld, the pit. If there was going to be any visitation of the divine upon the earth, it would be on a mountain top, which was the closest point to the realm of God or the gods. Mount Olympus was the point where the Greek gods were active. Mount Sinai is also the point upon which God’s presence descended. The story from Exodus paints a picture that is dark and foreboding— a vision of great danger. When God descended onto Mount Sinai, the people were very afraid. When they watched Moses disappear into the dark cloud of the divine presence, they thought he would never return. The idea was that you could not see God and survive.

The words of this psalm were probably revolutionary when first heard. The poem brings God down off the mountain. The presence of God is caring and friendly, and leads the people into their unknown future. At the heart of the text are the famous words, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid, for You are with me.” The psalm offers a genuine choice between living a life of fear or a life of trust. The difference between the two ways of life can be drawn out to make the point. Trust is based on the God described in the first few verses. We are called to trust God’s guidance for our future, and for the future of the loved we we have gathered to commit to God.

After a few words of setting, the poem can be offered (either read by the officiant or by everyone together) as a prayer for the deceased and a declaration for those who hear its words to live a life based on trust in God.

Psalm 139 (Not printed here.)
A relational understanding of love can be a powerful way to focus on grief and loss using Psalm 139. I begin with the simple acknowledgement that there is a price to be paid for love. When we are young, we believe that love is simple. We even have a way of expressing it as “falling in love,” as if it is as easy and natural as falling off a log. This simple view of love is rarely lasting, because the complexities of love come into play almost immediately. A favorite story from my own life is about the birth of my first child. I was young and I still thought life should be easy. My wife and I went through the birthing classes and were looking forward to the new addition to our family. I was present during the birth and when our daughter opened her eyes and looked into mine, I realized for the first time in my life that I was vulnerable to life in a whole new risky way. We took her home and in the following days, weeks and months, I fell in love with this child. I knew that now I was exposed and vulnerable because, by loving her, she would become part of me and I would become part of her. Now, after all of these years (32), it is hard to think of my life without her. She is so much a part of my life that when she is doing well, then I am doing well. When she suffers, I suffer. Love is what makes life meaningful to us; it binds us together, but it comes at great cost. Whatever happens to my daughters (now five daughters and three granddaughters) happens to me. I am now vulnerable to life. Most of us know this. We could avoid the risk of love by not loving, not having friends, not getting married, not having children, living alone. But who would choose such a lonely life? Love requires risk.

The Bible says that God loves the world, and that we are all children of God. If love requires risk, then what does love mean for God? I think it means the same thing as in our own lives. Love is a risk for God. God created the world and has an ongoing relationship with the world, which means that what we do and the choices that we make matters to God. If God is like a Mother or a Father, think of the risk God has made in creating us, and being involved with our unfolding life. God has taken a risk in loving us, and God chooses to continue loving us, no matter what we do or who we are. Wouldn’t a good parent’s love for their child continue even if that child hurts the parent? Of course. No matter what my children do, I continue to love them, sometimes at great cost to myself. But that is the nature of love. The idea that God loves us, but is not moved or affected by what we do, make no sense. Love transforms us. It forces us to become larger, deeper, richer, more compassionate human beings in our experience of life. By loving us and becoming vulnerable, God has chosen to become part of us and we become part of God. How else does love work?

After such an explanation, I read Psalm 139 as an expression of God’s love for us all, including the one we are gathered to remember. It is into the hands of this loving God that we entrust our loved one. God’s love transforms us. God creates new life wherever we experience death. God’s power is creatively transforming.

Mark 4:26-29
Jesus said that God’s power works like this: “The kingdom of God is as if a person should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

I often use this text at the beginning of a service. It sets the tone. I like the simplicity and directness of the image of planting a seed and nurturing it in its growth and then seeing it return to the earth at the end of its flowering. Most people can relate to simple elements of soil and seed, growing and returning to the earth. The seed sprouts and grows, “we know not how.” This is Jesus’ full explanation of how the power of God works and it is a mystery. In a gathering to remember a loved one, we are forced to see that life, at its very heart, is a mystery, which has always been the case. Life and death are so intertwined, we hardly notice all the different and less dramatic experiences of death. Pointing out the mystery of what we experience is helpful.

John 16:20-22
“I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

The correlation in this text is that death is a lot like childbirth; parallels can be drawn. I begin by referring to my experience of having my first child. Few can remember being in their mother’s womb or the experience of being born. It’s easy to image being in our mother’s womb and what that would be like for us. While in the womb we are comfortable, safe, and all our needs are taken care of. The womb is the only place we know; we are unaware of life going on outside the womb. The time comes, though, when the walls of that world contract and bear down upon on us with so much force that it pushes us through an impossibly narrow passageway, expelling us, quite unceremoniously, into a world we had no idea was there. Bright and loud and cold—how could we know? Who can remember that first breath, the searing feeling in our lungs, as air enters for the first time? Being born is not an easy passage and can be seen as a serious loss. The birth of my first daughter was a violent experience for all concerned but especially for the newborn. After working with my wife with her powerful birthing contractions, the baby was born, and I ended up sitting on the floor of the hallway outside the birthing room with my head between my leg, sipping a cup of orange juice. I still remember the experience over 30 years later. What I remember most is not all the drama of the birth, but the look of surprise on my daughter’s face: what’s all this? Welcome to the world.

Here we are now, living in this world. Most of our needs are taken care of and we are comfortable here. We have no idea of any world going on outside this world—how could we? People talk with confidence about another word, but we don’t know. What we do know it that there will come a time for each one of us when the walls of this world will come bearing down upon us with such power, pushing us through the narrowest possible passageways into a world we have no idea is there. We are as unaware of any life beyond this world as we were when we were in our mother’s womb. But just because we can’t imagine it, it doesn’t mean it’s not true. Again, the call of the Bible is to trust the transforming power of God without fully understanding it.

Mark 4: 1, 2, 35-41
Jesus began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered around him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he taught them many things. On that same day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them, just as he was, in the boat. And other boats were with him. And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on a cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care if we die?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

This text from Mark might be my favorite one to using during a funeral service. It sets the stage precisely and powerfully to focus on the one question it asks. It is an invitation to trust God’s creative transforming power.

Give a brief description of the setting. By this point in the narrative, Jesus had become quite famous. He was on the shore of the Sea of Gallilee, teaching a large audience. The people began to crowd in and press him, so he got into a boat in order to continue teaching. When finished, he invited his listeners to “go across to the other side.” The storm came with lightening and wind and rain. The drama is intense. It’s easy to image the panic of being in such a storm. Yet the storms of life don’t have to be a literal, but come in other forms in times of crisis when we can’t see a future beyond an impending loss. Sometimes we feel like we are rowing with all our strength to get through, to get beyond to the other side, rowing with all our strength against the wind and the awful fear of being helplessly overwhelmed by life. This is one of the great invitations in the Bible: come, “let us go to the other side,” whether it is getting through a divorce or a job loss or health crisis, or the death of a loved one or--the death of our own body. We all are moving into our unknown future.

It’s easy to empathize with those who are in the storm and their fear of being annihilated. The one detail that stands out in the chaos of the storm is: where is Jesus? Oddly, he is asleep on a cushion. Yes, asleep. The disciple awaken him and accuse him of not caring if they all die. He arose and calmed the storm. Then in a quiet pause, he turned to the disciples and, in turning to them, he turns to us with the most important question in life: “Why are you afraid? Where is your faith?” The force of the narrative and the sermon should give center stage to this question.

The story is a simple invitation to trust the power of God, even when God seems not to be present. We can call on God in the same way that the disciples called on Jesus. Trust is the issue of the narrative and of life. We are called to entrust our lives and the life of the loved one we have gathered to remember into God’s hands, not knowing where that will take us, accept that is will take us to the other side, wherever that might be.

John 2:1-11
On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; Jesus also was invited to the wedding, with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, ”Lady, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now six stone jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.” So they took it. When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Every one serves the good wine first; and when the guests had freely drunk, then the poor wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.”

This text is a favorite for weddings, but it can be used just as effectively for funerals. It is the first piece of narrative in the Gospel of John, after the Prologue and the calling of the first disciples. The scene is a wedding. Jesus is there with his disciples. This text also must have some background.

A wedding was an important celebration in the life of Jesus’ contemporaries. It was a time for families, and clans, and others, to come together. The feast might have lasted for several days and the parents of the bride and groom were facilitators of the occasion.

The stage is set in the context of a special yet ordinary event in the life of the community. Everyone is probably having a good time eating and drinking; it is a joyous occasion for most. The parents are anxious because their position and reputation is on the line. Jesus is the main character. Others come into play to set up the central action of the narrative, which is a transformation: changing water to wine. Jesus’ mother reports to him that the wine has run out. What is he supposed to do? What was she expecting from him? We don’t know. Jesus’ response to his mother is to back off. His response is a little strange “My time has not yet come.” Jesus told the servants to fill the jars with water, which they did, and he told them to draw a cup and take it to the steward (wedding planner?), which they did. He drank and it was wine. The steward complimented the bridegroom. The story ends and the gospel moves on to the next story.

Notice who is aware of the transformation in the narrative: Jesus, the servants and the reader. Nobody else knows. They don’t need to because the wedding continues without interruption or embarrassment. As transformations go, this one was relatively small and quiet. Yet, something happened to the water. We don’t know what happened or what Jesus did to transform it into wine. There were no words of hocus pocus, no prayers or incantations. The main action was the servants filing the jars with water and the steward tasting wine. But that might be the point of the story: transformations happen all the time, quietly, unexpectedly, under everyone’s noses without notice, and these transformations allow life to go on.

Point out how the following stories of transformations in the gospel get more dramatic. It’s like the gospel writer turns up the dramatic level until, by the time we reach the resurrection of Jesus, we understand how transformations happen. If we read the gospel closely, we will see the connection between the wedding and the resurrection: the same power of creative transformation has been at work all along. Even now, in this very moment of our lives, creative transformation is going on in our own lives, quietly, hardly noticeable, allowing our lives to go on.

The point to be made at a funeral service is just what has been discussed. What we experience as loss or death, God’s creative transforming power can transform all these experience without us even knowing or understanding how it works. We don’t know how Jesus turned water into wine; we don’t know how something can die and return to the earth and then new life emerges, ‘“we know not how”. It is unto this divine power that we look to for hope. How do transformations happen? We don’t know. Where do these transformations come from? It is the power of God. Can we entrust our loved one into these hands without knowing the outcome? Yes. It is just such creative transformation that gives life and hope.

Short texts

"Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:6-7).

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be trouble, neither let them be afraid" (John 14:27).

These two brief texts can be used to begin a prayer. They support the point that, in the face of dead and fear, entrusting our lives to God’s power brings pace.

This is merely a sampling of texts. There are many other texts that can be used to talk about the creative-transforming power of God.

What makes a service “process-relational”?
 
The answer is that it has to do with the language and metaphors that are used. The use of language of creative transformation subtly shifts the tone of the service. Notice in the examples of services below that there are no words about the promise of eternal salvation, or foreknowledge about what specifically happens when a person dies, or that God took or needed the person who died, or that the person is in a better place. There are no descriptions of heaven or an after-life. The basic theological assumption is that the death of our bodies is an extreme example of how God’s power generally operates in the world: God’s creative-transforming power works to create new life wherever we experience death, in ways that we can’t even imagine. Trusting this power does not require us to know what such transformations look like. Faith, or trust, is in this divine power and not in anything that we have done or can do. Being “in God’s hands” means that things are “out of our hands.” The theological goal of the service is, without being heavy-handed about it, to reframe the understanding of God’s power from coercive power that might sometimes intervene to “control events” from the outside, to an understanding of God’s love as persuasive power which invites us into our unknown (and unknowable) future. This is not to deny an afterlife, but it is a frank theological point to say that we just don’t know. Our hope is in the power of God to transform rather than in our ability to imagine what happens after death.

Two sample services

Here are two examples of services; they are bare-bone structures. In light of the discussion so far, the officiant can elaborate, or change the service to make it his or her own. Different circumstances will determine how to design a service. The service for the natural death of an older person is very different from a service for the sudden and unexpected death of a young person. Also, religious beliefs and traditions will come into play.

Order of service for a religious person:

FUNERAL SERVICE
Jane Dove

May the peace of God be with you. (Introduce myself.)

We are here to mark the passing of someone who is very special—we mark the loss of Jane Dove in death. We gather here to be together in grief. But we are here primarily to remember her life.

Jesus said that God’s power works like this: “The kingdom of God is as if a person should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29

Let us pray:

Loving God, we come before you now remembering Jane. We pray for her, that you would take her life into your own life and preserve her. We also pray for those who love her especially her husband, her children, her grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and the rest of her family and all her friends. (Name family members.)

God, you love us like a parent loves his or her own children. We are thankful that you feel our feelings along with us, and that the things we go through matter a great deal to you. Our pain is painful to you, our joy is also your joy, our suffering is also your suffering. We are thankful that you love us and care for us. Be with Jane's loved ones and friends now; surround them with the warmth of your healing love; give them courage and strength, and above all, comfort them and give them peace. In the name of the Creator and the Healer, Amen.

Meditation on John 16:20-22. (Discussed above.)
"I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy."

(Transition into a time of remembering the persons life.)

We are here also today to give thanks for Jane's life.

Jane was born on November 19, 1921 in Redwood Neb., and she was 87 years old when she died on September 10, 2009. She is survived by 3 children, 5 grandchildren and 1 great grandchild.

 Jane worked for Beckham Industries for 25 years before retiring. She was a very social person who had lots of friends. She was spunky and very active. She said what was on her mind. And she was very caring, thinking of others. She had a hard life, but she focused on her family and was very involved with her kids and grandkids.

(Read piece written by family or friends.)

We offer all of her to God, her ups and downs, her good times and bad, her happiness and sadness—everything, we give to God, trusting that God will take all of her and transform her in a place of peace and fulfillment.

I invite you, in a time of quiet meditation, to gather up your memories of this one woman whose life is now complete—to hold those memories before your hearts—and to say goodbye to Jane in silence.

(A brief Bible text can be used here.)

Let us pray:
Loving God, receive now Jane Dove’s body back into the earth, the earth from which she came, and the earth to which she now returns. And may her soul be taken up into your own life where she will be cherished and valued in your own enjoyment. We thank you for her life. Be with her family and friends now; comfort them, give them strength and courage, and above all, give them peace. We trust your goodness, in the name of God the Creator, Jesus Christ the Redeemer, and the Spirit the Sustainer.

Thank everyone for being there.

Benediction:
May God bless you and keep you.
May God's face shine upon you
and be gracious to you.
May God look upon you with kindness
and give you peace.
Let us depart in peace. Amen.

Order of service for an infant or young child:

FUNERAL SERVICE
Jack Hill
Born May 7, 2006
Died May 12, 2006

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (John 4:6-7).

May the peace of God be with us. Introduce myself.

We are gathered here today to remember Jack Hill in death.

Don and Jane wish to thank all their family and friends for their prayers and support, thinking that Jack too felt your support. Even though he was in his parent’s arms for only a short while, we thank you for him.

Let us pray.
Loving God, we come before you now remembering Jack. We pray for him, that you would take his life into your own life and preserve him. We also pray for those who love him, especially his father Dan and mother Jane and the rest of his family.

God, like a parent you love us and care for us and hurt right along with us. God we are thankful that you feel our feelings along with us, and that the things we go through matter a great deal to you. Our pain is painful to you, our joy is also your joy, our suffering is also your suffering. We are thankful that you love us and care for us. Be with Jack's loved ones and friends now; surround them with the warmth of your healing love; give them courage and strength, and above all, comfort them and give them peace. Amen.

Meditation on Psalm 139. (Discussed above.)

Today we offer Jack to his Creator.

I invite you, in a time of quiet meditation, to gather up your thoughts and dreams, and to say goodbye to  Jack in silence.

(Psalm 23 can be used as a prayer.)

Let us pray:
Loving God, receive now Jack Hill’s body back into the earth, the earth from which he came, and the earth to which he now returns. And may his soul be taken up into your own life where he will be cherished and valued in your own enjoyment. Be with his family now; comfort them, give them strength and courage, and above all, give them peace. We trust your goodness, in the name of God the Creator, Jesus Christ the Redeemer, and the Spirit the Sustainer.

Thank everyone for being there.

Benediction:

May God bless you and keep you.
May God's face shine upon you
and be gracious to you.
May God look upon you with kindness
and give you peace. Amen.

Aftercare

If asked to officiate at many funerals, it would be helpful to have a Grief Support Group. There are many resources available on the internet. This is often the period when people can reflect on their loss and how it has changed them. How do they cope when moments get difficult? What place does their loved one take in their current life? A process-relational view can be used in understanding life as a dynamic process.

There are many theological issues that come into play. Here are a few.

What does it mean to be in the hands of God?
We experience the creating, transforming power of God each moment of our lives. We experience it, but we don’t fully understand it. There are important aspects of life and death that are mysteries. Being “in the hands of God” is a metaphor for prayerfully and intentionally entrusting the life of our loved one to this Divine power. We are always in the hands of God, whether we are aware of it or not, even in the event of the death of our bodies.
           
How are life and death related?
This relationship is, at its heart, mysterious. We can’t have one without the other. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (6th cent. BCE) said “You could not step into the same river twice, for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” He also said, “Nothing endures but change.” This is the simple observation that change is life; we can’t stop or freeze any moment. From a process-relational view, with each moment something is lost and something is gained. In the dynamic of the emergence and the fading of each moment, we experience two sides of the coin, life and death.
           
What does eternal life mean? How can we talk about it in ways that are helpful?
The Gospel of John talks about “Eternal Life” in a way that seems clear that he is referring to life outside time. The present moment is without time. Time is an abstraction of the flow of emerging and fading moments of experience as opposed to everlasting life, which implies continuing life into the indefinite future. Eternal life, then, is a call to be aware of the present moment of life we experience. That’s where life is, in the present moment. The present moment is all we have. The past is dead and can’t be changed, and the future is abstract. Jesus told the woman at the well (John 4:7-26), “The water I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” This makes sense in a process-relational model: life is continually emerging into in the present moment and the next moment and the next.

What happens after the death of our bodies?
The short answer is “I don’t know.” But, truth be told, nobody knows, which is the whole point of the biblical call to trust in God. We never know what the future holds for us. We are simply invited by God into our unknown future with the simple trust that God can create new life wherever we experience death.
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We would like to hear from you if you have any resources that have been helpful to you in your pastoral care of those experiencing death and grief, and planning for funerals. The Rev Rick Marshall is co-pastor at the Brea Congregational UCC in Brea, California.