Thursday, December 18, 2008

How to Bury a Country Man

Here is an excerpt from writer and minister Curt Iles' blog 'Creekbank Blog'. Here Mr. Iles gives some advice to his fellow ministers on conducting funeral services for country folk. I think it's sound advice for a conducting services for any family.
How to Bury a Country Man
“The thing about common sense is that it ain’t common, Son.”
–Erik Pederson (whom we recently buried in his jeans and khaki shirt.)

I’m not an expert on how they conduct funerals in other parts of the country, but I’ve been part of dozens of Southern funerals. Funerals where we lovingly laid to rest country men—and country women.
Most of what I’ve learned on country funerals is from watching and listening.
I firmly believe there is no greater privilege and responsibility than to be called on by a family to help bury their loved one. Here are some tidbits to guide you.

1. Above all, spend time with the family. Nothing replaces being present. You don’t even have to say flowery words. Honestly, they won’t remember many things you say, but will never forget the gift of your presence. This begins with the first viewing by the family. In our part of Louisiana, this is always an hour before public viewing. It is the family’s first viewing of their loved one in a casket. It is an emotional and tender time. Whether the loved one has been ill for months or died suddenly, it is a difficult moment for the family. Get there early and pray with them as a group, then go in and be present. Don’t feel as if you must say a great deal. Honestly, answer their questions even if the answer is “I don’t know.” Let your words be few, yet real. The old Irish always said at their wakes, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’ That says a great deal. Telling people “I love you and I’m praying for you” is what they need to hear and feel. During the time of the wake and visitation, spend time with the family. It will provide an opportunity for them to share stories and reminisce.

2. Plan the service. Most of the time, the family will tell you how they’d like the service conducted—what songs and when, who reads the obituary, etc. Part of our job is to write down an outline of the service, if no one else has. Make copies for the musicians, funeral directors, other speakers, pallbearers. Make sure everyone is on the same page. There is nothing more disconcerting than blank stares when no one knows what is next.
3. Before going in to the service, gather the pallbearers and other speakers and pray. The pallbearers are often grandsons, nephews, or close friends. It’s a tender time for them, so gather them in a circle and pray with and for them, as well as the family.
4. Before walking in, make sure your coat is buttoned and your fly is zipped. This may not sound important, but I’ve seen it ignored, and “it ain’t a pretty sight.”
5. If you are reading the obituary, know how to pronounce every name and double check every detail with an informed family member.Country folk will correct you from the pew if you mispronounce “Aunt Minerva’s” name. It is a sign of courtesy to be prepared for this. Also in your sermon notes, write the name of the deceased with a black marker at the top of the page. I’ve seen ministers forget the deceased’s name or mispronounce it, which usually brings a loud correction from the next of kin and kills the spirit of the service.
6. When you walk to the podium to speak, draw a mental box around the immediate family and speak to them. Block out the crowd, the location, the flowers. It is just you, the family, and the body of their loved one.The family is the ones who matter most and by speaking directly to them, you’re ministering to everyone present.
7. Keep the content of your message simple: You’re there to lift up Jesus and remind all present that He is the only way to Heaven. You can never go wrong in lifting Him up. Use scriptures throughout your message—familiar scriptures that the grieving folks have heard all of their life take on a full and new meaning at this time. Also, in the case of every person who has lived, their life has dignity and their funeral is a time to celebrate that life. In the case of country folks, which is done best through stories. That’s why spending time with the family is so essential. I ask, “If you were standing up there tomorrow, what would you say? What story do you think describes your mother the best?”
8. Pray earnestly aloud. Pray from your heart, asking God to comfort these folks.

9. With the end of the service, your job is not finished. In fact, your presence and love during the closing is just as important. The directors open the casket and the gathered mourners, beginning at the back of the building, file by. As a pastor, you’ll stand beside the casket. Many folks will give you a nod as they pass, some will hug you, or offer a word of thanks. Most will respectfully stop at the casket and say goodbye in gestures or words.Usually many of those filing by will hug or speak to the family members on the front pew. This part of the service can take a good amount of time. I always remind myself that this is a very necessary part of getting closure—for everyone present.Then as the last passerby exits, it’s time for the family to say goodbye. Once again, this cannot be rushed and is a sacred time.When I speak at funerals, I’m able to keep my emotions in check. However when the family members come to the casket, I lose all composure. As I watch a teenage granddaughter place her head on PaPaw’s chest weeping on his freshly starched overalls, I weep with her.As two sons steady their old mother and she looks for the last time on this earth at the face of her husband of sixty years, I weep. It’s not a put on or for show. It comes from my heart. I once was ashamed of this, but have come to realize that sharing ‘the gift of tears’ with folks is important.When the last family member has left, your job is to stand there as the directors close the casket, and escort the body to the hearse.
10. Let me be brief on the cemetery service: be brief. This is not the time to preach or say a great deal. Scripture, prayer, and your concern are all that is needed at this time.
11. Finally, don’t rush away from the cemetery. Linger and hug on grandchildren and kiss older ladies on the cheek. They are now your family and you are theirs. When you help a family bury a country man—or country woman—you become linked at the heart. And the years and miles will not diminish the bond you share.I always try to return to John 11 when Jesus visits the tomb of his friend Lazarus. That chapter is so full of Jesus’ wisdom for leading a family or group through grief. The words of Isaiah the coming Savior says it clearly: “. . . a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.”As followers of that same Savior named Jesus, we are called to be well acquainted with grief. It allows us to lock hearts with those hurting and grieving.
It's a calling.
It is an honor.
It’s a privilege.
for the full text of this post, and more great Curt Iles writing and stories, visit


Charles Cowling said...

Terrific, Patrick. Thank you. Such power in these words.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post, very appropriate thoughts. And I'm pleased and honored that you chose to use one of my photos. I took that on a gray, January day in a local cemetery after I had planted some antique roses among the graves, and then wandered a bit.

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