Weddings and funerals are things that all ministers come to know fairly well. We are called on and privileged to serve people in these events. It is true that that is changing a lot – the percentage of weddings and funerals officiated by ministers of religion is declining. Civil wedding celebrants are increasingly doing funeral duties, making them the new masters of ceremony in the minds of many. But that is just a little side thought.
I was asked the other day, along with a Roman Catholic priest, whether we preferred to do weddings or funerals. He said he preferred funerals, because you had so many people coming together to share their good memories of the person who had died. You frequently get bigger crowds at funerals, he said.
I hadn’t actually thought about comparing weddings and funerals before. They are very different types of jobs, but it is an interesting exercise comparing the two.
There is a lot more lead time for weddings, and so they are much more time consuming. Funerals are organised much more quickly, and as far as ministers of religion are concerned, a lot of the organisational work (and legal requirements) is done by the funeral directors.
Weddings tend to be uniformly happy occasions, where the tone of funerals varies depending on the person who died, the circumstances they died in, and the beliefs of the family. I personally find funerals for people who aren’t Christian (or whose immediate family aren’t Christian) to be much sadder events – whether I am officiating or attending.
In my experience, funerals that are planned without faith in Jesus tend to be much more shallow affairs. True, that might be my perspective, but without Jesus and his resurrection, it seems like there isn’t much to focus on other than sadness and hollow platitudes in imitation of the funerals you see on TV shows. And the same goes for weddings. So much of the performance of wedding ceremonies becomes very trivial without Jesus. Pretty. Colourful. But shallow.
So a lot of my answer depends very much on whether we are talking about Christian funerals or Christian weddings.
But one thing, above all others, tipped me in favour of officiating at weddings (as opposed to merely attending either event).
Its that in my experience, funerals bring out family feuds and nastiness. Fights between parents and children, and between siblings. Jealousies, rivalries. More frequently (but not always) these things are ignored at weddings – or the lack of an invitation is the end of the matter. As a minister of religion, you frequently aren’t even aware that there are issues.
But funerals are a different matter. There are warnings not to allow particular people to speak. Sometimes there are even rival ceremonies organised by different feuding parties. On occasion, there are even evictions.
All of these things will make bad relationships worse. They drive wedges between people even deeper. It can be heart-breaking to watch, as these pains are added to the grief of someone you know dying.
If ever there was a reminder that people are broken, and in need off spiritual healing, this is it. Death ends the opportunity we have to be able to be able to receive the spiritual healing that Jesus offers through his death on the cross. To forgive and love our enemies, to just Jesus for justice instead of demanding it on our terms and in our time.
You would think that a funeral would be the very event you need to reflect on the fact that hatred and on-going hostility causes nothing but misery, doesn’t bring you satisfaction, and won’t make you feel good. But people don’t.
Because people continue to think that if they just get their own way, if they force other people to do things, or live their lives, they way they want them to, then they’ll just be happy.
People expect to get happiness from getting their own way, or from other people treating them the way they want. Despite the fact that the best this will get you is a short burst of good feelings – at the absolute best.
This desire to control, to be in charge, to be listened to and respected, is not something that is possible in a world where everyone is sinful, selfish and unkind (to varying degrees). The effort to achieve it will cause more pain and suffering in others than is imaginable.
And yet Jesus offers a better way. Turning the other cheek. Loving your enemy. Suffering for the sake of others. Because we are secure, through Jesus, in the love of God, will provides all the comfort, acceptance and care we can ever need. Jesus can and does replace bitterness with joy in the lives of those who trust in, and are transformed, by him.
If I saw more realisation of the need for Jesus at funerals, they may perhaps become my more favoured event. But as long as they continue to be venues for people to cling to bitterness, extract revenge, and manipulate and control others, weddings will remain my favourite event.