Thursday, June 18, 2009

Should a "Eulogy" (presentation about the deceased's life story) be part of Christian burial?

Short answer: Yes.

To ignore a person's life story in an individualistic culture like ours is the kind of tone-deafness that makes the church weird and irrelevant to the unchurched.

The question then becomes how to remember the person without compromising the message of Christ. This is a serious matter:
  • + Eulogies can become (or at least be misunderstood as) a required presentation of good deeds to justify the deceased's entrance into heaven. This undoes the Christian message of salvation, which is a gift from God received by faith.
  • + An unexamined acceptance of eulogies cannot help but lead to a "salvation by works" message, in which a mentally ill homeless guy who dies in a gutter can't go to heaven (no available file of his good deeds and nice personality), while a narcissistic, drug abusing, serially divorced, child neglecting movie star does get in for giving lots of money to the rehab center and doing public service announcements against global warming.

Here are a few practices that I find helpful in addressing the eulogy issue:

  1. Stress, at the start of the service, before the eulogy and anywhere else you can, that the eulogy is an act of thanksgiving. I usually say something like, "In this part of our service, we think about X as a gift from God, giving thanks for any ways in which our lives were blessed through X's life with us."
  2. Don't do a eulogy unless you really know the deceased and want to offer a thanksgiving for him or her. I give families an option: one of them can offer the eulogy or, because I recognize that speaking at a funeral is very difficult, I will gladly read a eulogy that they produce. I introduce this in the service by saying something like, "Those who most intimately shared X's life have written down some of their memories as a way of thanking God for X. As I read this on their behalf, you might have memories coming up as well. Give thanks to God for the way in which your life was blessed by X's."
  3. If the family has a member who wants to speak, be clear with them about your expectations and ask for notes or text well before the service. I've been burned by a family who wanted X's "beloved nephew" to offer "the eulogy," only to have the nephew get up and do a sermon, explaining why X was "saved" according to the nephew's church, with the clear implication that anything I might get up and preach was not "real Christianity" and need not be heard.
  4. Know your theological boundaries. Let your "Yes be yes and your no be no," with gracious clarity. I've had requests to alter Bible passages, for example, because the family liked some of the words but "didn't agree with that part." That's a "no" for me. Your church is not a "rented hall" and you can say "no" to requests that violate your teachings and values.
  5. Above all, make sure that you preach a sermon after the eulogy. Point the people toward God. You can actually bridge from eulogy to sermon quite nicely if you've used idea #1 above: "Having given thanks for the ways that God blessed us through X's life, we now share the work of returning X to God. Letting go of one we love is painful, but our lessons today give us hope that pain and loss are not the final word for people of faith..."

This doesn't claim to be the final answer for the eulogy issue. I totally respect those who, like some Roman Catholic Bishops, have banned eulogies in order to avoid the misconceptions they can cause. But I think that allowing eulogies has positive potential if there is good communication with the deceased's family and, most of all, well thought out, clear and authentic worship leadership and preaching during the service.

A Christian burial service with a eulogy can reflect Christ's Great Commandment, by lifting thanks and glory to God while dealing gently and responsively with the people.


Chip Johnson+, cj said...


Some of the absolute best evangelistic sermons I have ever preached came in sermmons, often for persons unchrched at all, for whom the funeral director called on me as the closest pastor.

What a great opportunity to turn lives around. Once, I was called upon in West Tennessee for a young man who had been crushed to death under a car in a junk yard, while trying to 'midnight requestion' a tranmission, which fell from the jach on his head. I had never met the man or his family; but seventeen people found Christ that day, some even attended my congregation until I moved on.

There was no way to 'eulogize' him, but a great way top open doors for Christ.


The Archer of the Forest said...

I am very leery to allow family members to give the eulogy because it always gets way out of hand in my experience. If people want to give eulogies and words of remembrance, I try to make it a point in inviting all those wishing to say a few words to do so at the luncheon afterward or maybe after the graveside service if appropriate.

The funeral is a worship of God, not the deceased. I find being very clear about this heads off a lot of the "Let's play his favorite Bangles song" or whatever in the service. They are welcome to go hog wild doing that kind of stuff (again within reason) at the reception or the wake or whatever but not in a proper liturgy.

I have never had anybody ask to edit a bible passage. That's a new one on me. I've had requests for secular readings, which I only allowed once and only then because it was a passage by CS Lewis. Even then, I was a bit uncomfortable by it.

TLF+ said...

Thanks, Chip+ & Archer:

You both highlight the opportunities and the risks that take place around church burials. Not all that different from weddings.

Archer's point about keeping the service focused on God and doing the human remembrances at the reception or wake has merit, and is certainly a way to head off some of the confusion. That is close to the marriage ceremony pattern, in which you have showers, the reception and other party venues, with the blessing at the altar a solemn time in God's presence.

catholicus said...

The new Roman Rite for funerals expressly bans, by name, all "eulogies."

There is the old saying that "the deceased was lying in the casket, and the preacher was lying in the pulpit."

It is this kind of oozing prose that the rite bans. People are still often invited to give 'reflections.'

A eulogy by any other name...