"And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." - Hebrews 9:27
The pastor's eyelids are drooping. Sweat is beading on his forehead. He takes out a tissue, dabs his cheek and then sighs intolerably. Apparently, it takes a lot of energy to lie about folks once they've died.
Yet that is precisely what he does. And often.
In fact, this pastor admits to me that he almost constantly lies when eulogizing the recently departed. He offers rosy recollections that often have little relation to reality. Other times, the lies are unwitting, as he is unaware of the secrets we lock away in the dark recesses of our consciousness.
"Live a good life so I don't have to lie about you when you're dead," he pleads.
I nod my head in agreement.
He recalls a recent funeral where a group of women, huddled together in the back like a sewing circle, snickered when he began talking about how good a person the deceased was. At another funeral, the pastor pondered aloud whether it was a tendency "to give too much" that brought an early end to the deceased. "'Twas his love of fried food, more like it," sniffed a woman in the front row.
So who snickers the most at the lies? Invariably its women, says the pastor.
"You know how they are so harsh with other women, picking them apart because they used the wrong colored lip gloss or something. Doesn't end just because you die," warns the pastor, who adds that he hears more gossiping before, during and after funerals than at any other time. To some degree, saying mean things at someone else's funeral is likely bound up in the natural impulse to assert one's dominance over another human being. Death seems to provide the ideal opportunity to do so.
We humans are a petty lot.
But mostly, the lies are of the complimentary variety, says the pastor. That is to say, people exaggerate the good deeds of one who has recently passed.
"We have some saints," says the pastor, who then adds, "For the rest, the truth wouldn't provide much comfort." So what should I say?" That is the plaintive cry of preachers everywhere who must eulogize those petty angst-filled humans who, as essayist William Hazlitt famously observed, "illuminate their own streak of fortune by making those around them seem as dark as possible."
Rev. Jerome McFarland of Excel Ministries in Washington, DC., avoids saying much about the deceased and focuses instead on a biblical message concerning death and the judgment. "I write my sermons for the living, not the dead," says McFarland.
When eulogizing, pastors may also consider the need to keep their seats filled. Saying a few nice things about the recently departed invariably provides comfort to bereaved family members and provides a psychological link that may draw them back to the church for future services. Filling seats in a church, like anywhere else, is a market driven proposition. Or, as Time magazine once put it, inspiring congregations is "a huckstering, show-bizzy world, jangling with hype, hullabaloo, hooey, bull, baloney and bamboozlement."
This particular pastor doesn't enjoy telling lies. Even of the little white variety. So he urges his congregation to repent, commit to God and to actively prepare themselves to meet their makers. No amount of kind words, he notes, can give one eternal life in heaven.
Better, he reasons, that we should commit our lives to the Lord, practice acts of charity and reinforce biblical principles in our daily lives. If we would all do this, we will ensure the direction of our souls in the afterlife, and we just might makes things a whole lot easier for the kind pastor who must bid us ado.