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:
- 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."
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.