Funerals in a Dead Church

How do you perform a funeral for someone from a dead church?  This was a recent assignment for me.  A beloved member of my former church, which closed nearly a year ago, passed away.  Let’s call him George.  Although he had been active in our old church, he had become reculsive in his later years, and never was able to bond with his new congregation.

This is not uncommon.  In his case, his Presbytery did appoint a lay pastor to do home visitation with those who requested it.  (In the United Methodist Church there is a provision to automatically assign members to nearby churches if they don’t seek out a new congregation on their own; I don’t believe the UCC has any standard provisions for care of former members of a closed church).

When George died, there was some angst about how and where his memorial service would be held.   The family and the pastor from his new church reached out to me because I had been his pastor for 11 years.

Officiating at George’s memorial service was an honor, and many people stepped in to make it go smoothly.   The Pastor from his new church provided the space and a pianist.  Former members of the closed church agreed to come and serve the catered meal.  Since George had no wife or children, it was a nephew from Iowa who supplied family photos to display and suggested some favorite hymns.

Most importantly, the former members of the church that closed made contact with each other.  Although they have dispersed to several new churches, they stay in touch and many of them came to pay their respects.  We passed around a microphone and told stories about George, and we laughed and cried.

The biggest surprise was the emotional hurdle for me: preaching again to my old congregation, now all of us strangers in different, strange lands.  It felt, to me, like a funeral service not just for George, but for the little congregation we had been forced to say good-bye to.

George’s memorial service reminded me that the closure of a church will affect vulnerable members of the congregation most deeply and they should not be neglected.  This includes the homebound and those without other family systems to lean on.

Every funeral in a church that is dying or has closed is packed with an additional layer of emotion.  Every death reveals the backstory of grief we have survived in the past.  Yet this is part of the reason we gather to remember the dead: not just to say good-bye to a beloved soul, but to be reminded of the continued presence of the resurrected Christ in our midst.

In fact there is no such thing as a dead church.  We are all part of God’s living Church, whether in old buildings or new buildings, together or apart, in life, in death, and in the resurrection.

Thank you, George, for reminding us of that.

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