The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Wanted: A comforting presence

Friends, relatives, loved ones, colleagues, associates and acquaintances die.

If you have the opportunity to attend a funeral or memorial service of such a person, even if you barely knew him or her, do it.  I make this recommendation based largely on events in which I took part 50 years ago, 37 years ago and almost two years ago.

The 50-year-old event: My father was on the faculty of Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, when he died toward the end of the school year. We four children, never having lived in Dubuque, came from our homes elsewhere. The funeral was held in the magnificently Gothic seminary chapel. Every pew was filled with students, faculty and staff. A gifted vocalist sang "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" from Handel's "Messiah," a piece that our father had loved.

Thirteen years later, our mother died in Dubuque. Again, we four children assembled. Our first task was to make arrangements for her funeral. We asked the pastor of the church that she and my father had attended for many years to hold the funeral on a Saturday to make it more convenient for friends to attend — but he held out for Friday. We asked for the "Messiah" solo that had graced our father's funeral.

At the funeral we saw only a couple of people who had been old friends of our parents and perhaps three or four others we didn't know. The paid vocalist sang "I Know That My Redeemer Lives," not the "Messiah" composition but the hymn-book arrangement.

We were crushed. Our mother had lived an active life in Dubuque. Where were her friends? Where were members of the seminary faculty or their spouses? Where were members of her church? Where were those who had known and liked and valued her for more than a decade? Were they indifferent, forgetful or inattentive? We don't know. All we saw was a negative. All we saw was their absence.

In August 2008, my brother Gerhardt died at his home in Alliance, Ohio. Three generations of family and an assembly of many friends gathered for his memorial service at a church he had served as an interim pastor in Carrollton, Ohio. Yes, we were still in the stages of mourning, but we were also celebrating his life. The nave of the church was large, but nearly every pew was filled. Two hundred or more mourner-celebrators? Perhaps.

When the presiding pastor invited attendees to share memories, I reminisced about the races my brother had won as a half-mile and mile runner in high school and his performance as a mile-relay team runner in college, setting a school record that lasted many years. Then I segued to Gerhardt running St. Paul's good race, his crossing the finish line and achieving rest.

After the service, we retired to the basement where women of the church had prepared a sumptuous feast. More talk, more sharing of memories by this fellowship of believers who had known and now honored my brother. How like my father's funeral. How unlike the ignominious, disheartening experience of my mother's.

Do this: Routinely check the obituary page of your daily newspaper. If you see a familiar name, respond. Join the mourners. Your presence will comfort them.

This week's front page features:

Feb cover2Ministry of space: (right) Church cleans out the loft, brings in the band.

Ports in the storm: In an age of piracy, ministry to seafarers offers advocacy and 'moments of grace.'

Captain tells of a 'close piracy call' on the high seas: An interview with Rene Santos, captain of Discovery Bay.

Meet 'Fast Eddie': He'll give you cookies, communion and a $2 bill.

Also:  Open the Bible, find yourself.

AlsoIn praise of pastor's kids, grandkids.

Also:  Forgiveness: One Step at a Time.

Tell us: Bible verses that made a difference

What Bible verse made a difference in your life and why?

Please explain in 250 words or less. Include your name; the Scripture (book, chapter and verse); your congregation (provide town and state); and your e-mail address or phone number.

Send to: The Lutheran magazine, attn: Elizabeth Hunter, 8765 W. Higgins Road, Chicago, IL 60631; e-mail: elizabeth.hunter@thelutheran.org.

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Julie B.

Julie B.

Posted at 1:08 pm (U.S. Eastern) 2/2/2010

I think this is a great reminder, Gunnar, and thanks for making it. In the last years as more and more newspapers and funeral homes have started on-line guestbooks, I've started to leave comments there. Although I live too far from the towns of my childhood to attend funerals as you suggest, I'm able to check the obituaries (no, it's not just something really old people do!), and especially if it's a parent of someone I was friends, with, I leave a message of a great memory I have of them and words of sympathy. I can only guess that families appreicate these, too, although both my parents died before this was a common practice. It only takes a minute or two.

Julie Sevig

Patty A.

Patty A.

Posted at 3:11 pm (U.S. Eastern) 2/3/2010

I agree totally with Gunnar and the comments by Julie.  One of my main "hobbies" is genealogy, so I read the local obituaries each day.  Although life sometimes precludes me from attending funerals, I do try to leave an online message and/or mail a card.  It's amazing how much the presence of family and friends means to us at a funeral.  I've found that calling a few weeks later and letting a person share their memories is a great release for their grief.   

As a child, I remember people crying when they heard one of those "oldie" hymns that had been sung as a favorite of the deceased.  Having been a church organist for many years,   I play mostly Easter (and other positive) music.  After all, the funeral isn't for the deceased--it's for the living!

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