The Privilege of Being a Pastor

I shared a few wedding stories in a previous reflection. Now, (lucky you who get to be with me in the weeks before my retirement!) here are a few funeral stories.

My husband and I started as co-pastors of two very rural churches, as you know if you have been reading these reflections. At the Little York church, we had a funeral on a very hot day. We had just gotten back to our house when the funeral director called us. The sister-in-law of the deceased had been carrying a big platter of meat into the dining room at home with the family gathered after the funeral. She succumbed to a heart attack. It made for very interesting and confusing conversations on the landline prayer chain (this was in the early 1980s) as the news was shared with the community.

A few years later, I was serving as supply pastor at a church in a town of 300. I did funerals for members and nonmembers alike. Several of my most vivid memories of funerals happened there. The funeral home was eight miles away in the county seat town of Montezuma. I had driven there and was riding out to Deep River with the funeral director on a windy day. He asked if I had noticed a big mess in the ditch along the highway on my way into town. He told me that the vault was being towed out to the cemetery, was caught by a gust of wind and blown into the ditch. It was cracked and unusable. So, we were going to have the pallbearers carry the casket to the gravesite, conduct the graveside service, then wait for the family to leave and put the casket back into the hearse to be driven back to town until they could get another vault.

I had another funeral in January of one of those very cold years at the end of the 1980s. It was so cold that the funeral director and I decided we would do the graveside service in the sanctuary and not have anyone go to the cemetery except his crew and me. We got out of the hearse at the cemetery, I walked in the minus 30 wind chill with him to the grave, said a prayer, and turned to get back in the car. As we did that, the family very slowly got out of their cars (they were supposed to just watch from there) and walked to the grave. Of course, we waited for them. I distinctly remember thinking “Why did I wear these gold earrings? I think my ear lobes are freezing from the inside out.”

At that same church, on a very hot day, I accompanied the American Legion members to several rural cemeteries for services on Memorial Day. The elderly gentlemen were all dressed in their uniforms, many of which looked like wool. At the last cemetery, I was pronouncing the benediction that includes “Support the faint-hearted” when a gentleman beside me fainted and slowly sank to the ground. I had to stop myself from saying, “Like him!” My husband was in a different ceremony in another rural cemetery on a windy day. The American Legion members were there with big flags. A very tiny elderly man was standing near my husband when a gust of wind caught the flag. As it carried the gentleman over the top of a gravestone, my husband heard him say, “Help me, pastor!”

When we were co-pastors of a 450 member church we had three funerals during Holy Week. We also had two very busy teenagers at home. It is all a blur, but I think I remember that church members started bringing food to our house to help us out! Then there is the time when I was called to the hospital from another church where someone had passed away after having a heart attack while mall walking with his wife. She was waiting for me to arrive to go to see his body. On the way to the room, the nurse said to us, “He looks a little different.” I have since learned that medical people call this condition a “blueberry.” People at the mall and in the ambulance had performed CPR and the man was already dead. So, they had pumped unoxygenated blood upward into his head. I wanted to take the nurse aside and say, “A little different? He looks like a Macy’s parade balloon!”

But my favorite funeral story is this one. In the town of 300 I mentioned earlier, I was asked to do a funeral for someone I had never met. He was old and sick and had committed suicide by shooting himself in the face with a shotgun. His daughter had found him. When I met them at the funeral home, it was about 36 hours later and she looked like she had not slept. We worked out the details of the service and then I said, “I never had the privilege of meeting your father. Can you tell me a little bit about him?” She and her brothers and others in the room looked at each other, took a long pause, and finally one of the men said, “He never killed a horse.” My first thought was “Me, neither.” Then I realized that what they meant was that he never worked a horse to death. He had used horses on his farm and put them out to pasture when they were old. After his funeral, one of the men in the church I served came up to me and said, “I am glad you did not pretty him up in the funeral.”

It is a privilege for pastors to be with families at the most important times of their lives. It is also a privilege for pastors to gather with their colleagues and share stories like this to let off some steam. I wish you the kindness and care that you need for carrying out this part of your ministry—and I wish you good friends with whom you can let your hair down.
The Rev. Sue Krummel, Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago