We are planning another funeral, one of the small duties of which is selecting materials for inclusion in the folder that will be handed out to guests. The funeral home offered sample poetic spiritual selections for the funeral program. These poems are meant to offer consolation, but the ones commonly offered by funeral homes do something like the opposite.
There’s Footprints, which has an official website, where a man is marking steps with God and notices that God’s steps suddenly disappear at every low and desperate crisis. He wonders why; was he abandoned. (You know this already, right?) Nope. The one set of footprints belonged to God, carrying the poor guy over the roughest parts of life. There is an alternative version going round. In addition to the missing footprints God points out some very deep gouges in the sand, noting those are the occasions when the Lord had to drag the man along kicking and screaming.
In I Am Free, mourners are instructed “don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free.” That’s the only line of any worth, but not much. The following declares “I’m following the path God laid for me.” And the last couplet, “Lift up your heart and share with me / God wanted me now, he set me free.”
The poem, if one may call it that, To My Dear Mother is a sentimental wallow. “It breaks my heart to lose you, but you didn’t go away alone; for part of me went with you, the day God took you home.” I would not have used it for my mother. It ignores all the times she cruelly ordered me to do dishes, nor does it account for her sometimes biting sarcasm. Find me a poem that does something with those things and I may be more open to it.
“God saw you were getting tired and a cure was not to be,” opens an untitled bit. “So,” it continues, “He put his arms around you and whispered, ‘Come to me.’” The last couplet is similar to others I’ve seen: “God broke our hearts to prove to us / He only takes the best.”
Sentiments of this sort find no favor with me. One obvious feature of each is bad poetry. I usually class these things as “parlor poetry,” little poems children were told to memorize and recite for Aunt Matilda when she showed up. Saying that, however, may be a disservice to parlor poets.
A second common feature, Footprints aside, each of these poems ascribes death to God. God did it: He took you away because, well, gosh, he just wanted you now, so he broke our hearts to show us he only takes the best. This is what God did? This may represent some kind of pop theology loaded with over baked sentimentality, but it is not any sort of biblical Christian theology I know.
Death, asserts St. Paul, is the final enemy of God, and thus our enemy, the enemy of our flesh. But I have listened through funeral sermons echoing the poems in funeral home folders. Preaching that doesn’t name death as the real enemy leaves Christians unarmed against the assault of sin, death, and the devil. When we are left to confront death possessing only jejune, inchoate, amorphous and mistaken beliefs about God, we miss his promise in Christ that death will be destroyed, utterly rooted out and crushed underfoot.
And if God is responsible for death, especially this death, to whom may we lift our cries and desperate sense of emptiness? To whom shall we make lament? Death is a time for lament to God. Real lament, the biblical sort, wrenches our spirit and names our irreplaceable loss for the truth it is, names what is finally found beyond mere words. From within lament we confront hope: If death is our enemy, God is our vindication against it.
Instead, try these for a funeral folder. They take note of the pit and the dust of death and the hope of rescue.
I called upon your name, O Lord, from the bottom of the pit;
You heard me call, “Let not your ear be deaf to my cry for help!”
You came to my aid when I called to you;
You said, “Have no fear!”
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust;
Whom I myself shall see: my own eyes, not another’s shall behold him,
And from my flesh I shall see God; my inmost being is consumed with longing.
Put these on a funeral card and you will have declared something authentic.
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, was published this month by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.