Will you be known when you die?

It’s disconcerting to meet an entire family for the first time at the funeral you’re officiating.

By Mark Wingfield

Years ago, there was a national ad campaign aimed at helping Americans understand the importance of going to church. One of my favorite ads in the series showed pallbearers carrying a casket in the front door of a church. The headline read: “Will it Take Six Strong Men to Get You Back to Church?”

One of the hardest things a pastor gets called upon to do is to officiate the funeral or memorial service for someone he or she never knew. Several times, I’ve been called upon to officiate such services at a local funeral home, when the family of the deceased has no relationship with a church to call upon a minister. It’s one thing to do a service for an unknown family member of someone you do know, but it’s another thing altogether to meet an entire family for the first time at the funeral you’re officiating.

There can be a humorous side to these occasions, however. Often, the humor comes from the music — in my estimation, at least. My favorite example is the funeral I conducted for a mild-mannered man who died at age 72. The final song the family chose to be played after my message and before we left for the burial plot was Willie Nelson and Ray Charles singing “Seven Spanish Angels.” In case you’ve not heard this fine piece of music, it’s a story song. The story is about a young couple of outlaws. He meets his final end in a shootout with the law, “in the valley of the gun” and then seven Spanish angels “from the valley of the sun” come to take him away. Distraught that she cannot live without him, the woman raises a pistol knowing it has no ammunition, forcing the law to shoot her too. And again, the seven Spanish angels come to take her away to the “valley of the sun.”

Apparently, I was the only one in the room who found these lyrics disturbing. Everyone else wept copiously through every verse of the song. I wondered if the deceased had requested this song or if there were some unique connection between the song and his life. But I couldn’t know, because the family was as unknown to me as good theology apparently is to Willie and Ray.

Funeral arrangements are the kinds of things many older adults begin to think about. More than once, I’ve had an elderly person approach me to say, “I want to make sure you know who I am before I die, because I would like you to officiate my service.” Those are helpful conversations.

So here’s a somber thought to ponder: Will you be a stranger to the church when you die? It doesn’t have to be that way. There is an easier way to get to church than being carried in by six strong men.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.