Today I officiated at a graveside funeral for the mom of a friend. As I drove home afterwards, I thought about why I prefer funerals to weddings. As a pastor for the past 22 years, I have learned to enjoy weddings, but there is something about funerals that feels more real and I think I know what it is.
At weddings, there is essentially one emotion everyone should be feeling. If you aren’t feeling that way, you probably shouldn’t be at there. True, people shed tears at weddings, but they are more tears of joy than tears of grief. I have officiated weddings that are super awkward because some of the attendees – usually divorced parents of the couple – are still so angry with each other they can’t be fully present for the wedding nor fully supportive of the couple’s marriage.
When I meet with couples to plan for a wedding I always advise that they decide the seating of parents and other key family members ahead of time. This is especially important when parents are divorced. At one wedding I conducted, the parents of the bride nearly came to blows over who got to sit closer to aisle.
Not all weddings are filled with drama. Many are lovely, but even in the most pleasant ones a pressure exists to be as a happy as possible and to speak in platitudes about the bliss of sharing one’s life with another. There is little acknowledgement of how much hard work a marriage is, let alone any long-term relationship. One thing I tend to do in my wedding homilies is to observe how crazy it is that two people gather their friends and family to announce that they have determined to spend their lives together no matter what. How can this possibly make sense? And yet, people do it, which is an act of faith. I think only God can make sense of it. God allows us, albeit imperfectly, to love this one person the way God loves us all.
As exciting and beautiful and glamorous and dramatic as weddings can be, I prefer funerals. At a funeral all emotions are permitted. That is, if the officiant properly frames it, and if the congregation is willing. One thing I regularly say is, “we gather within the protective shelter of God’s healing love,” and therefore we are “free to pour our grief, face emptiness, and trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
Don’t get me wrong. Families often want a Memorial Service to be a “Celebration of Life” and try to stave off any negative emotions. Recently I was invited to “say a few words” at a memorial gathering for a long-time member of my church that had moved away several years ago. The daughters wanted to keep it “upbeat” and make it a “celebration.” In my opening remarks, I acknowledged that in the midst of this celebration we feel grief over the loss of this beloved woman, and that there is no wrong emotion in the presence of God. When I finished, I went and sat down. I looked over and noticed the granddaughter who was in charge of the video camera. She was wearing a face covering because of Covid and at the top of the covering were two wet marks, one under each eye.
She, and we, need permission and space to grieve the ones we’ve lost. It’s too exhausting to put on airs and pretend that celebration is the only appropriate response. Celebrate by all means, but also allow yourself to feel grief, anger, relief, confusion, joy, loss, jealousy, guilt, and wonderment.
At today’s service, we laughed and cried and sometimes held holy silence there at midday in the cemetery. I encouraged people to be “conscious of others who have died, and of the frailty and preciousness of our own existence on Earth.” I can only imagine how much collective loss we shared in that space, not only for the person we had come to bury, but for all of the losses that such an occasion awakens. A new grief brings up all the former ones. Not only is that okay, it is exactly what it means to be human.
Grief never goes away. But when we acknowledge grief and allow ourselves to feel its strange cadences, it changes over time. We grieve because we love. Perhaps that is the connection between funerals and weddings. At a wedding we witness two people committing to each other knowing that every marriage ends in loss. And yet people do it anyway. That feels like a miracle to me.