LETTERS






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Publication: The Christian Century
Date published: March 22, 2011

Truth-telling at funerals

In light of Michael A. King's ''Naming the shadows: Truth-telling at funerals" (Feb. 8), let me offer a Jewish perspective. In the Jewish tradition there are two kinds of persons- those animated with life and those no longer animated with life. All human beings, as creations of God, must be honored and treated with dignity and respect. The task of treating the lifeless human being with dignity and respect is made more difficult because that person cannot speak for himself or herself.

For this reason, according to Jewish law, one may not eat or drink in the presence of the lifeless; to do so is to mock the dead who cannot eat or drink. One may talk in the presence of the lifeless person only about matters that pertain to the honor and dignity of that person, namely, the funeral service and other arrangements- and surely words of prayer and lament.

One may not speak ill of the dead not because the lifeless person was perfect when alive (no one on all the earth is without sin), but because he or she cannot respond. The lifeless person cannot take criticism and learn from it, cannot respond and explain his or her behavior or present heretofore unknown facts that might refute the criticism or place it in a different perspective. Living humans have the obligation to stand for the honor and the dignity of the lifeless one who is now mute.

It is not the purpose of a eulogy to provide an evaluation of someone's life as if it were an exit interview in the workplace or a support-group activity. It is not the purpose of a eulogy for human beings, who are themselves imperfect, to stand before others in the presence of the silent, defenseless, lifeless person and talk negatively about or render judgment upon that person. That is the task of God.

How do children provide the honor due a parent when that parent did some really horrible things? In the Jewish tradition, the family gathers in the sequestered setting of the home for seven days after burial so that together, possibly with the help of a few others, they can fashion a useful, though incomplete, understanding of the deceased. The funeral service as a public, religious event is intended to pay honor and dignity due to all persons created in the image of God. Its purpose is to draw a positive lesson or two from the deceased's life that others can use and to express and deepen our sense of the sanctity of life itself. To do anything else is presumptuous.

Rabbi Yehiel Poupko

Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago

Chicago, Ill.

Shortly after the holidays I was asked to conduct the funeral of a woman who had been a member of a church I previously served. It was known that she had had many emotional problems and had tried to take her life several times in the past. Close friends told me that there was good reason to believe she had succeeded this time.

In an effort to "name the shadow" at the service, I began to talk about the necessity of facing the tragedy with courage. The widowed husband stopped me in mid-sentence: "Who told you that? Where did you get that from?" In an effort to keep my composure, I assured him and the gathering that my intent was to help everyone move past the pain of loss by facing the circumstance head-on, and so I continued with what I had prepared.

In speaking with some of the woman's friends following the service I got the unmistakable feeling that while I had shed light on the elephant in the room, it probably hadn't accomplished what I was after.

I have lived these past several weeks with the conviction that, regardless of my intention, my approach was totally inappropriate. The husband called me to task on his Facebook page. I offered a sincere apology for causing pain to him and his family, but not for what I said, which I still believe to be the truth.

Michael King's article has put an entirely new light on my experience. While I'm willing to confess to an insensitivity to the people present at the funeral service and to admit that I might have approached the circumstances better, at least I know that my heart was leading me in the right direction.

Karl R. Kraft

Glassboro, NJ.

King correctly points out that eulogies that focus entirely on the positive often come off as phony and as such reflect poorly on the pastor and the church. However, as he admits, when it comes to speaking of the "shadow side" of the deceased, it is not easy to figure out how to do so. The eulogy is an opportunity to address both the emotional needs of those who grieve and the theological questions raised by life and death. In addition, it is an occasion for making clear how the story of this particular person is part of the larger story of what God has done, is doing and yet will do.

This certainly requires telling the truth, but there are many ways to do so. Listening closely to the loved ones of the deceased can often yield clues to what needs saying and even how to say it. Just as one must take care not to "pretend that the deceased had no need of forgiveness," one must also take care not to be too harsh. The advice of poet Emily Dickinson comes to mind: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant."

James Benedict

Union Bridge, Md.

Michael A. King responds:

Karl R. Kraft grasps the intent of my comments. He also heartrendingly highlights the dangers of naming elephants in rooms and perhaps points us to the importance of seeking to honor the limits of loved ones' abilities to experience elephant-naming as life-giving.

I see much to ponder in Rabbi Yehiel Poupko's conviction that the purpose of the eulogy "is to draw a positive lesson or two from the deceased's life that others can use." I agree- while continuing to hope that we might include a grace-filled and delicate naming of shadows amid our understanding of what makes for positive lessons.

James Benedict integrates the various paths we can take at funerals with his apt citing of Dickinson. This makes space for the possibility that not to engage the elephant at all can cheapen positive lessons. But to name the elephant outright can dishonor the dead, who, as Rabbi Poupko observes, "must be honored and treated with dignity and respect." To tell the truth slant may involve alluding obliquely yet still meaningfully to shadows. This can be a way to honor the dead and respect the living while simultaneously conveying that the good life is not so much the perfect one as the life lived in truth and with integrity, its beauty often shining forth from grace-wrapped intertwining of successes and messes.

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