One of the most curious things I do as a pastor is the occasional “pick-up” funeral. I’ve given that label to funerals or graveside services I conduct for people I’ve never met – generally people with no church affiliation and therefore no relationship to a minister.
I could write about why it’s important to go to church so someone will know you when you die, but that’s another column. This column is about living, not about dying.
With only a few exceptions, the deceased who get to me through a funeral director as a minister of last resort share another thing in common: Their family members do not know what to say about their lives.
Normally, when I conduct a funeral for someone I’ve known – a church member, a neighbor, a relative, a friend – I make the service as personal as possible. I tell stories about that person’s life and draw out lessons we all can learn from them. But more often than not, that isn’t possible with the pick-up funeral.
Here’s how a typical phone call goes with a family member after I introduce myself:
Me: I’d like to know more about your loved one, what he did in life, what he enjoyed, what activities he was involved in.
Family member: He was a wonderful, loving father and husband.
Me: That’s good to hear. Are there any memories that stand out in particular that would be good for me to talk about?
Family member: He loved his children and was a great father.
Me: Was he involved in any organizations or did he have any hobbies or interests of note?
Family member: No, he was a kind person.
And so it goes, often with barely a scrap of information from which to weave a meaningful eulogy or homily. But I always try anyway, because everyone deserves to be remembered well at their passing.
“How is the world different or better because this person lived?”
The most I’ve ever done with the least bit of information was for a man who drove a bread truck. That’s all I got from the family, other than that the deceased – of course – loved his family and was a great father. From that small morsel of information, I created a nice funeral message about Jesus being the Bread of Life.
Don’t get me wrong: There is nothing bad or incomplete about being a loving mother or loving father and a kind person. These are, of course, exemplary traits. But they also should be baseline expectations of decent humans.
What troubles me most about the people I meet for the first time at the cemetery is how many of them failed to live life beyond basic expectations. And granted, maybe I’m imposing on their lives my own expectations for what a good life should be. It’s likely they died quite content with the lives they led and the love they gave.
But then again, I come back to ask: How is the world different or better because this person lived? What evidence is there that they were here? Certainly there are social and economic factors that allow some of us to live larger than others, but aren’t there some things that could transcend economics to create a legacy for anyone?
When I contrast these funeral experiences with those of others who die with much more to say about their lives, I see five suggestions for all of us who want to be remembered well:
Be a loving father, mother, spouse, brother, sister, child. Live in such a way that your own family will have something good to say about you when you’re gone. Even if they often disagree with you or you disagree with them, leave them with something to say.
Give of yourself beyond your family. Only 30 percent of American adults volunteer with an organization in a typical year, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. That means two-thirds of American adults are not serving anyone anywhere outside their families. Family is important, but families can’t be healthy in isolation from communities. Give something to humanity at large.
Travel while you can. Never have I heard a terminally ill person say, “Gee, I wish I hadn’t taken that trip so soon.” If you want to travel, find a way to do it sooner rather than later. Travel is important because it expands your worldview, makes you a better person and makes memories. If far-away travel isn’t in the budget, take day trips to nearby places. The point is to experience something different than your usual routine and a location other than your everyday setting.
Nurture a faith that is visible. We all know folks who grew up in a church and then wandered away and never got back in the habit. That’s a sad reality of our times, but even sadder is how many people walk through life identifying as Christians or Jews or Muslims or whatever and yet give no evidence of that faith influencing their lives. Believe in something and let that shape who you are and what you do. Make sure someone can stand up at your funeral and say what you believed not just because of what you said as a child but because of how you lived as an adult.
Give some of your money away now. Generous people get better eulogies than greedy ones. I’m a minister so of course I would love for you to give more to your church (always a good idea) but where you give is not nearly as important as that you give. Even the smallest, intentional, charitable gift is legacy building. (And by the way, research shows poorer people often are more generous than wealthy people.) Let people know who you were and what you cared about by the track record of your bank account.