Why Funerals Are a Good Way to Start a Decade

“How’s that little boy?” he asked as he pointed to the row my mom was sitting on, there in the back of the sanctuary, helping me find my seat.

“He’s great. Growing so fast,” I quickly responded as I clutched the program for the first funeral of the decade I would attend.

“Good. That’s what we care about,” he said, “…the young people.” 

Not an hour before, I had been talking with another dear friend I’ve known my whole life about how much he and his wife cared about young people and hungered for them to grow in Christ.

Thoughts from those conversations washed all over me as I sat in that packed sanctuary, celebrating a life well lived…Doris. She, too, had invested in those coming behind her as long as I had known her. You’d never know looking at her the valleys she had travelled through, but you did know how much she loved people and how much she wanted them to have the same relentless hope in Christ she had.

The sound was familiar when the family was ushered in to the front row of the church. Tears spilled down my cheeks as I stood from my seat on the back row. I had been where they had been. And, I had heard that sound they heard in that moment…the sound of people from every available seat in that very sanctuary rising to pay honor for a life well lived. It was loud.

I heard it from the lives impacted by my evangelist Granddaddy and my pastor Daddy. But that day, I heard it from the lives impacted just as much by a little lady who stood tall for the Kingdom in her community. 

All that was January 1st.

January 2nd, I went to my second funeral of the decade in the same sanctuary, wearing the very same clothes I had brought from Virginia to North Carolina, sitting in the same seat, next to my mom, seeing many of the same people. What a way to start the next ten year stretch of history.

Betty. She died before Doris did, but her funeral was the day after. She was a church grandma to me. She was part of my home and she died the day before Christmas. She looked the same my entire life…face crinkled by wisdom and joyful mischief. Even since I was a little girl, I was taller than her. But her steady presence was a pillar that stretched taller than most of us.

One year she hunted me down and fussed at me for not sending her a Christmas card. She wanted me to remember her. I never made that mistake again. When I mailed her card late December this past year, I did so with gratitude remembering that she really wanted to know me and that she loved me.

When I got word that she had died, I wailed, “I wonder if she got my Christmas card?!”

And when I hugged her only remaining core family member, I did the same. Her son responded to my cries with the deepest compassion…that I really should have been offering to him, “Oh, Emily, yes! She did! She was just so proud of your writing and couldn’t wait to read your book.”

I was undone and probably caused either more comic relief at my unkempt state as I moved through the hugging line or more distress because people didn’t quite know what to do with me— what with all the snot and tears coming out at rapid speed through my indistinguishable condolences.

I made my way back up the aisle toward my seat and one of my first baby sitters saw the whole mess of me and stood to hug me. It’s weird and wonderful being 35 and feeling the same comfort from your former babysitter with a gentle rocking hug. Her mom, another of my church grandmas, stood and cried with me, while another friend raced tissues to us all.

I hugged my church aunt as I pilgrimed back to my seat and on the way to do so, a shrunken old lady, hanging over a walker on the back pew said, “Hey, Emily.” But at home, Em-i-ly isn’t how people say my name. It’s “Em-lee.” When I hear someone say my name that way, that’s when I know someone has known me a long, long time. My church aunt whispered to me who it was. I’d known the lady my whole life, but didn’t recognize her. She was dying. She had insisted on leaving hospice to come to this funeral and later that day, she got out of her car in the pouring rain to touch the casket of Betty one last time.

I went back to my chair, next to my own mom, struggling in her own right with the latest respiratory bug and a broken heart alike.

There were four preachers at Betty’s funeral and she made sure that the piano was played that her daughter had played my whole life until she died herself of cancer two years before.

At the end of the service, they rolled Betty’s casket out the side door. It was her last time at our church. She came to know Jesus in that church when she was six. She was baptized in that church. And she made a deep impact for Jesus in that church and outside of it, too. I drove my mom and me home, and we watched the hearse turn down the same road that leads to the same cemetery my grandparents and my dad are laid to rest.

Two funerals in a row the first two days of this decade for some of the most quietly influential people in my life and all the care-filled conversations about the value of those coming behind these older generations, spoken from their own peers…that put a lot into perspective.

I guess it causes some questions to stir in my soul as I consider this next decade in my own life and maybe, if you’ve hung with me long enough through my reflections of these precious souls, they will for you, too.

1. What are we living for?

The Bible says, “…all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:16b). Do you hear that? Ordained! God designated a specific number of days for each one of us to be who He created us to be on this earth. You have ONE life here on earth. Just one. Don’t waste it. Nothing you’re searching for or working for will last apart from what you sow for eternity. Like Johnne Donne talks about in regards to the bells rung upon people’s passing…the bell tolls for you. One day, it will be your funeral. Be sobered up by the brevity of life. Don’t spend your days and minutes frivolously. Be intentional. Be generous. Be wise. Let go of the stuff you’re clinging to that is worthless and hold your hand to the plow of worthy things. Filter it all in light of eternity.

Don’t waste your purpose.

2. Who are we living for?

“Jesus” is the Sunday School answer I’m looking for here, but the broader answer is for those surrounding us that He has put in our lives.

Those before us…the aging… help them how you can and don’t forget them. They helped you, too. Care for them with the same care or better that they have shown you. Learn from them and apply those life lessons to your own intentional living. 

Those beside us…our peers…the ones we walk with and who are noticing the kind of life we have. Don’t miss the opportunities to encourage those around you to live on purpose for Christ by any means possible. 

Those behind us…the next generations… lead by example, take every opportunity to write the words of God’s Word on the door frames of their hearts, invest everything you have to lead a trail of gospel seeds for them to find fruit from long after you’re gone, and show them the love of Jesus. 

Don’t waste your influence for the Kingdom with the people God has given you to live for.  

3. Why are we living where we are, right now, with what we’ve been given?

God has designed you for the days in which He placed you. Betty was born within a mile of our church and never left. Doris had deep roots in the community as well and was a very successful business owner. God placed them in the pulpits of the grocery store, a pre-school, the auction house, and the business desk. Where you are matters and it’s your pulpit. It matters because of the people you will encounter. No one else in the world is in the exact position with the exact connections that you are. Your place in history, occupation, resources, and community matters. Consider where all these things intersect and ask God to help you be more intentional for His Kingdom. Immerse yourself in His Word and do what it says. You are where you are and you are called to do what you do because of the way this has been woven into your life by God. 

Don’t waste it.

Staring down the barrel of a new decade after spending its first two days at funerals calls for more thoughts than usual. So here I am, begging myself and begging you…

Don’t waste any of it. 

Don’t waste the time. Don’t waste the callings. Don’t waste the small things.

Don’t waste the big things. Don’t waste the place. Don’t waste the purpose.

Don’t waste any of the gifts God has given you in this next stretch of time.

The bell tolls for you, my friend. 

Yes, I suppose funerals are a good way to start a decade because they remind us of all these things and God can use it to all to demonstrate redemption for the tears.

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