The Hardest Funeral I Ever Held

Sometimes you pity the preacher. When everyone has been shocked into silence and stillness by a death of tragic or untimely proportions, he’s the one who has to stand up and voice the grief and try to put the life of the deceased into focus. While they’re grieving, he goes to work.

Charlie Dale pastors the Grace Baptist Church in the Bywater section of New Orleans. This weekend, two men in our city were walking on sidewalks and were killed by motorists. One took place 5 blocks from Charlie’s church, the other in the central business district. Charlie will be holding the funeral of the latter one Wednesday morning.

If Charlie and other pastors are like me, even while they are in the midst of the mourning and grieving, when they are struggling to find just the right words, and while their hearts are being torn in two, they will feel a surge of inner joy that few others would understand. That joy is evidence that God has called that pastor into this ministry, that he is doing the very thing for which he was created and to which he was called.

How many funerals have I conducted over a half-century of ministry? I made no attempt to keep records on such. But if you conservatively figure just one funeral a month, the number exceeds 500. Most were normal and fairly indistinguishable from the others. A few stand out.

The strangest funeral I ever held was for a 64 year old man and his 32 year old grandson. Now, stop and do the math on that. How could a 64 year old man have a grandson that age? The answer is that the older gentleman had died 10 years previously and the family had kept his ashes, but there had never been a funeral. Now that the grandson was dead and would receive a funeral service, the family included grandpa.

The tragic part of that funeral, however, has nothing to do with their ages. It’s the way the son died. He was murdered. His wife had taken a lesbian lover, described by the son’s father, who was my barber, as “a large Black woman who looks like a man.” She was even called by a man’s name and sometimes passed herself off as one. Long story short, the woman put an axe through the husband’s skull and stored his body in the freezer out back. She made no attempt to dispose of the body; just froze it. When family members came searching, they made the discovery. A trial was held and both the wife and the killer are doing hard time in a state penitentiary.

And I did that funeral. Pretty tough.

Three funerals stand out, though, as the hardest I ever conducted.

In 1968 or 1969, three year old Sonny Stewart died of leukemia. His parents did everything they could to find a cure, and spent untold weeks at St. Jude’s in Memphis, back before that great medical center had made the discoveries and advances that were to come later. Little Sonny was the sweetest child the Lord ever made. When he died, my heart broke and still aches. That was Greenville, Mississippi.

The other two took place in Columbus, Mississippi.

Susan grew up in our church there, a vivacious well-liked teenager. She wanted to be an artist and took a degree from Ole Miss, then went to New York City where she worked in an art store. One day while she was alone in the store, she moved a huge piece of artwork that rose high above the floor. As she turned to walk away, she did not know it was off balance. It fell and crushed her skull.

She was her elderly parents’ baby, and we grieved as much for them as we did about Susan.

That funeral was held at 1 o’clock at a church down the street because we had a 2 o’clock wedding in our church. I rushed from the funeral where my heart was breaking to the wedding where I rejoiced with the families.

Welcome to the life of a pastor. When it’s all over, you go home and put on your jogging clothes and run 2 miles…or have a good cry…or something.

The worst, the absolute worst, funeral took place along about the same time–the early 1980s–when a young mother in our church died in childbirth along with her newborn baby. I’ve written about it previously on this website and will not go into it again. While she lay in the hospital expecting to give birth to her third child, her womb broke. Amniotic fluid flooded her body and rushed to her brain. At 4 o’clock that morning, the doctor’s wife called me to say, “Carlos just called to say he’s lost the baby and now he’s losing the mother.”

That was close to 25 years ago and to this day I cannot even type the words without my eyes clouding up. I walked into the operating room with the distraught husband and father where his beautiful wife and perfect baby lay as though they were just taking a nap. At the family’s request, the casket was opened at the church and everyone saw that same unforgettable image.

I have no memory what I said at any of these funerals. My guess is I just cried with them and tried in my faltering way to share the hope God’s Word gives to His people.

That’s how I know God called me to be a pastor. Without that calling, I would not do this, not for any amount of money. But even in those difficult services, I knew I was right where the Father wanted me and I would rather have been there than any place on the earth.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” That’s Romans 12:15 and it’s the mandate of the Lord’s people. It’s also the preacher’s assignment and his high honor.

It’s also the toughest thing you will ever do.

8 thoughts on “The Hardest Funeral I Ever Held

  1. You may not remember what you say but I’m sure the family does. I remember at Brian’s funeral that you warned us against blameing God for Brian’s untimely death when he shot himself when he was drunk. You said, “Don’t ask God why he did this. God didn’t do it, Brian did.” Then you went on to warn aginst being angry at Brian because we’ve all done foolish things without thinking of the consequences. Very blunt and right on the mark.

  2. Hi, Joe. Thanks for your memories in this article. I, too, have preached some very difficult funerals, and one of those was for our mutual friend and brother, John Steen, at Greenville. But the most difficult of all was for my mother. I preached on “My Mother Reminded Me of Jesus,” and that was truly a comfort to family and friends alike. It is amazing to me that God’s word has no example or command to preachers to “Preach funerals,” or “Marry couples,” but, as you said, we are to weep with those who weep. But it is a great privilege to do what He did tell us to do, “Preach the Gospel,” whenever and wherever. There are so many who never hear the Gospel except at times like these. Keep on keeping on, my brother. I do enjoy your articles very much. Hugh Martin.

  3. Last summer I was invited to share in the funeral service for a dear man whom I had served as pastor 36 years ago. His wife had passed away 12 years before. Their only child, a son, requested that I devote my part of the service to his mother since he had never gotten closure after her death. I honored his request and eulogized her, a wonderful lady.

    Thurmon Harris

  4. It’s interesting to receive this article today. I just came from a funeral for one of our parishoners and I am exhausted. Jack came to our church three and one-half years ago and gave his heart to Christ three years ago. A giant of a man (6’7″, 400 lbs) and he made a very strong and lasting impression on our church. He died very unexpectedly but I am so thrilled that God didn’t call him home four years ago. I don’t want to say this was an easy funeral but I know where he and I know I’ll see him again.

    The most difficult funeral was for a man for whom I could find no one who had anything nice to say about him. His funeral was not a celebration of life but true grief for a lost soul.

    thanks for sharing with us.

  5. I am on call to a couple of the area funeral homes and when a family needs a pastor to conduct the service, I am called. I see it as an opportunity to preach the Gospel as well as comfort the bereaved. Several years ago, I was called to conduct the service of a young man, fleeing from the law, totally wrecked his car and damaged the body to such an extent that it couldn’t be opened. It was a graveside service, scheduled for 11 am. While at the funeral home, we received a call that the gravedigger had dug into an unknown grave and the coroner would have to be called to make sure that it wasn’t a murder victim. We conducted the service at 2 pm and more than a dozen of his boy and girl friends were there, dressed in their ‘colors’. I noticed a woman with a male escort, determined that it was his mother accompanied by a deputy from the county jail. At the close of the service, each of the youths came by the open grave and discharged their gang emblems into the open grave. I don’t know how much good I did, but I planted the seed. I told the funeral director that he would find them all back at the gravesite by nightfall, honoring the dead with marijuana. When we left, they were playing some of the most vulgar music that I had ever heard. Strange, indeed!!!

  6. I can’t think of any funeral that is “easy”. For some it is grieving over a lost soul and for others it is a struggle between not knowing whether to be sad at the loss of a loved one or joyful that they are now in heaven with a loving savior. Either way, it is a privilege as a pastor or lay person eulogizing the loved one and being able to share the Gospel. I think the best example for a pastor on how to conduct a funeral service comes from John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Many times that is all some folks need is just someone to cry with them. And what better witness than to do as Jesus did.

    God Bless you!

  7. Joe,

    Although I have only done two funerals and three eulogies in my brief time (5 Years), as a Chaplain, I can relate to your message. As one who deals with people in crisis situations, which often includes the loss of loved ones, I too, could not do it if I was not called. There are those in the secular world who do crisis intervention, but like my fellow Chaplains

  8. Bro. Joe. I was 14 years old when I was saved in a Youth revival service on a Friday night at Emmanuel Baptist, Greenville, MS. It was May 1968. You were our pastor and baptized me. My dad passed away only a couple of months later in August 1968. It was only by God’s grace that I was saved BEFORE my dad died. You conducted the funeral (without knowing my family or my dad). I was too young to say thank you back then. So, thank you for being there for me and my family during my first encounter with death. Bro. Hugh Martin was my second pastor! Wow! God put two wonderful men in my life at such a young age for which I am grateful. I’m also glad I’ve found your website. I will continue to read it often.

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