Throwback Thursday ~ Churchmanship 101: Funerals

Originally published January 9, 2015

I was born into a church-going family. I grew up in church and have attended faithfully my whole life. These days, that’s becoming more and more rare. Often, people have a very hit and miss relationship with church, and if you haven’t had much experience attending services and other events, it can be easy to miss out on some of the decorum and how-to’s that are a given to those of us raised in church. You don’t want to “do it wrong”, but, then you don’t want someone telling you you’re doing it wrong, either. So, I thought maybe I (and I need some help from you other “lifers” out there, too!) could serve as a resource.

Thus, a new series I’m introducing today: Churchmanship 101. We’re going to take a look at various activities and events of the church and go over some of the biblical basics and/or practical aspects of churchy stuff. (One quick disclaimer: I’m writing as a lifelong Southern Baptist who has spent most of my church life in small to medium-sized, traditional {think steeple and pews, with no laser light show or rock band} churches. That’s what I know, so that’s the perspective from which I have to write. Your experiences might be a little different.) Please ask questions, suggest topics, and share your stories!


Churchmanship 101: Funerals

As a ministry wife and church musician, I’ve been to a lot of funerals. I mean, A LOT. I’ve seen some awesome ones and I’ve seen things that would make you wonder what planet some of the attendees/bereaved were from. How about a few helpful hints about funerals and wakes for the bereaved, the attendees, and the churches who host them?

The Way You Look Tonight

Yep, I’m going there. In a civilized society we dress appropriately for the occasion. Not necessarily expensively, but appropriately. Generally speaking, the following are inappropriate for funerals:

  • visible cleavage
  • fishnet stockings
  • mid-thigh (or shorter) skirts/dresses
  • stilletto heels
  • excessive bling, makeup, or hair
  • jeans
  • shorts
  • flip flops
  • camouflage
  • baseball caps
  • leather pants
  • overalls

(There could be some exceptions, such as if a baseball player dies and people wear baseball hats to honor him, or something like that.)

If you look in a mirror and you look like you did when you used to go clubbing, or to a picnic, or to mow the lawn, you need to change. A) You’re going to church, and B) somebody just DIED. Show some respect.

Ladies, whatever the rest of your wardrobe looks like, you need one decent, modest dress, suit, or skirt/blouse combo in a muted color that could be worn to a wedding, funeral, or job interview. Men, you need one decent suit and tie or slacks/dress shirt/sport jacket/tie for the same reasons. No, jeans are not slacks. No, a denim or athletic jacket is not a suit/sport jacket. If you don’t want to put out a lot of money because you don’t often dress that way, go to a thrift store. Many times, you can find brand new clothes (tags still on) for a song. Or, if you’re really hard pressed, borrow an appropriate outfit from a friend.

Suffer the Little Children

Wakes and funerals are mind numbingly boring for small children who don’t know what’s going on. If you have small children and you’re a funeral/wake attendee or you’re family of the deceased, consider getting a babysitter. In fact, it would be a wonderful gesture on the church’s part to have someone volunteer to take the children of the deceased’s family members to the nursery (or other kid friendly room) and let them run around and play, feed them, etc.

However, if you feel you have to have your child at a funeral/wake (whether you’re a family member or simply an attendee), you MUST supervise and control your child. If he makes a fuss during the service, take him out to the lobby until he calms down. And by all means, do not let him run wild in the church or let him play on the sanctuary stage (there may be expensive sound equipment, office equipment, etc., he could ruin) during the wake. First of all, there will be many strangers coming and going, and these days you can’t be too careful about abductions and abuse, even in a church. Second, your child could hurt himself or run out into the parking lot or street. No need for an additional tragedy. Furthermore, it is awkward for the pastor or someone else to come to a grieving family and ask them to please control their child because he is disturbing or upsetting others or destroying something.

Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room

If you haven’t been able to kick the habit yet and you need a cigarette, go outside. Most churches are smoke free zones. Stand far enough away from the entrance that people don’t have to walk through clouds of smoke to get into the building and that smoke doesn’t waft into the building.

A Picture of Me Without You

Selfies with the deceased are déclassé. If you have to do it, at least wait until no one else is around, and keep it off social media.

Watch Your Mouth

Swearing (even what you might consider mild swearing, like WTH or OMG) is not appropriate in a church. Ever.

Neither is chewing tobacco.

Hangin’ on the Telephone

Turn off or silence your phone.

While there may be lulls during a wake when it’s ok to check your phone/texts/social media, that’s never OK during the actual service except in emergency situations.

Food, Glorious Food

Bring food for the family for after the funeral if you can. If you’re not sure what to bring, you’re probably safe with a cake or a deli (meat/cheese or fruit/veggie) tray. If you’re an attendee, understand that the food that has been brought is for the family even if it’s all laid out in the fellowship hall and looks like a potluck. This is not an open buffet unless you have been specifically invited or a general announcement has been made that all are welcome to eat.

Don’t Make a Scene, Irene

For various reasons, sometimes people laugh or smile at a wake or funeral. That doesn’t mean they didn’t love the deceased or that they don’t miss him/her. (But it isn’t a comedy club either, so try to contain yourself if you’re amused by something.)

Go to the bathroom before the service starts so you won’t have to be embarrassed by getting up and walking out in the middle of it.

Wakes/funerals are not a time or place for family feuds or for airing grievances about the deceased. Keep it to yourself.

During funerals, there’s often an open call for people to “stand up and say a few words” about the dearly departed. The key word in this phrase is “few.” Share a brief and appropriate fond memory or something you appreciate about the deceased. Again, swearing and airing of grievances are not appropriate, and neither is vulgarity, personal, private details, or a long harangue aimed at the bereaved or attendees.

Different cultures express grief differently. It may be totally appropriate for there to be a roomful of loud weeping and wailing at certain funerals. However, if you’re the only attendee doing this, others may not be able to hear the service. Be aware of your surroundings.

You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore

If you’d like to make a memorial donation to a charity or other organization in honor of the deceased, be certain (especially if you’re considering one that hasn’t been suggested by the family) it’s an organization the deceased would have supported. For example, I would love it if, when I die, people would donate Gideon Bibles instead of sending flowers, but I would turn over in my grave if someone made a donation in my name to Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, TD Jakes, etc.

Welcome to My World (A word to churches and pastors conducting funerals)

Churches should be funeral friendly. Make sure your signage is up to date so non-church members will know where the sanctuary, bathrooms, fellowship hall, etc., are. Make sure the bathrooms are clean and well stocked with paper towels, soap, toilet paper, etc. And while we’re on the subject of bathrooms, correct any plumbing problems or at least put up signs indicating that a toilet is out of order, you have to hold the handle down, etc. Church members may know, but visitors don’t. Provide plenty of well placed kleenex boxes in the sanctuary and other rooms family members might use. Provide a “family room,” if possible. Sometimes family members just need a moment alone.

Pastors: breath mints and deodorant. Enough said.

Pastors in the South in the heat of summer- a simple, elegant, and BRIEF service at the grave site is always nice. (Likewise for pastors in the North during the dead of winter.)

Well, those are just some of the observations I’ve made at funerals over the years. Any other advice, suggestions, or questions out there? Are things done differently in your neck of the woods? What has been your most interesting funeral experience?