Everyone hopes for a nice funeral, and with the exception of evil dictators, mass murderers, those who text while driving, and a few really annoying Sooner fans, I’d say just about everybody deserves one.
You live a good life, put in your work, and endure your trials. You have every right to expect a nice funeral. You want your friends and family to be there. You hope that it’ll be on a sunny day in the afternoon, that way no one will get their nice shoes wet from the dew-soaked grass that can be found at mid-morning funerals. It doesn’t have to be a state funeral. You don’t expect to have your coffin pulled down a path on a horse-drawn cart. Still, you hope the last event at which you’ll be the center of attention does justice to the kind of life you tried to live.
Nice funerals are my specialty. I’m a good storyteller, don’t get too preachy, and keep it pretty short. At post-funeral receptions, I’ve been told by more than one sweet old lady that she hopes I’ll be able to do her funeral, but not too soon of course.
I’ve done enough funerals that I’ve forgotten many of them. I remember snapshots in funeral homes and at gravesides, but I don’t remember the details. There is one funeral, however, that I can’t forget. It’s the one time I felt like I didn’t give someone the funeral she deserved.
Circumstances were working against me from the start. She died at the worst possible time. There was one week out of the year when no one at our church was allowed to die. That was the week when our church hosted a gathering of several thousand adults who made a yearly pilgrimage to our city to enjoy preaching, singing, and fellowship. I was the director of this event the year when this sweet lady died. I had been working long hours in the weeks leading up to the it, dealing with criticism for some of the speakers who were on the program, and addressing a never-ending stream of stressors that came my way during the three day event, including making sure we raised enough money to pay for it.
I remember being so tired I was numb on the last day, which was a Saturday. That’s when I was told by a fellow staff member that this woman had died and her family wanted me to do the funeral. It was a hurried conversation. I told her to tell the family that I would be honored to do the funeral. She got back with me a few hours later to tell me that the family had set the funeral for Monday afternoon. I was hoping they’d wait until Tuesday at least. The rest of the staff was taking that Monday off, but I had one more job to do.
We set up a time for me to meet with the family on Monday morning. After that meeting, I went back to my office to prepare what I was going to say. From there, I went straight to the cemetery chapel.
I was so tired that I was barely able to pay attention during the meeting with the family. I’d ask a question. They’d answer. Somewhere in between my eyes would glaze over. I kept telling myself that I needed to wake up and pay attention but i couldn’t shake the fog. I left the meeting with a enough information to piece together a few paragraphs of remarks. It didn’t help that I didn’t know this lady very well. We had exchanged some pleasantries after a few sermons, but I didn’t know much about her. This is not uncommon for preachers. We’re asked to say nice things about people we don’t know very well all the time. We get to be pretty good at it. Sometimes the less we know about the person, the easier it is.
I went back to my office and started working through my notes. One of the things I had asked the family to do was to prepare an extended obituary. I do this for just about every funeral I officiate. Prior to my meeting with them, they tell the story of their loved one’s life in a way that fleshes out the lists of dates and names that make up a typical newspaper obituary. This is helpful in a couple of ways. First, it’s therapeutic for the family. Some resist this exercise at first, but when it’s finished, they’re usually glad they did it. Second, it helps me have something meaningful to say about the person, especially when I don’t know her very well.
As I worked through what her family had written, I noticed that they had used her husband’s proper name. Everyone knew him as Barney, but his given name was Bernard. Seemed like a straight forward pronunciation, but as I read it, I had a niggling sense that there was something tricky about it. But how many different ways are there to say “Bernard”? Apparently there are two ways to say it, and if you think “Barney” is a useful clue, you would be just as wrong as I was.
Next was her hometown: Wewoka. Now Oklahoma is full of little towns with names like Wewoka. There are a couple of ways you can pronounce Wewoka. I took my best guess and moved on. I should have known better. When it comes to pronouncing local names, the instincts of an outsider are always wrong. Sometimes I think locals pick the most unlikely pronunciation just so they can take great joy in correcting outsiders who weren’t lucky enough to grow up in the area.
In both cases, the choices I made in my office for both names were wrong. Had I been at the top of my game, I would have made a quick phone call and made sure I knew how to say them correctly. Instead, I just hoped I had them right. I was simply too burned out to care about proper pronunciation.
The funeral service was short and sweet. I started by butchering the name of her hometown. Then I repeatedly emphasized the wrong syllable of her husband’s name as he was sitting six feet in front of me. To his credit, he never flinched. When your parents opt for the most obscure pronunciation of a common name, you probably get used to it. He’s probably the one who started telling people to call him Barney with the hope it would simplify his life.
The old man was willing to let it pass, but his son wasn’t. On the way to the graveside he went out of his way to tell me how to pronounce Wewoka and Bernard. I could tell he was irritated. I’m sure I apologized, but don’t remember doing it. Usually, I would have been mortified to find out that I’d made such a mistake. One of the secrets to giving the deceased the funeral they deserve is to correctly pronounce the names of the people and places important to them.
Again, I was too tired to care. I actually remember saying to myself, “This is going to bother me later I’m sure, but right now I’m too tired to be embarrassed.”
I was right. Eventually it did bother me. I hated that I had left her family with a memory of her funeral that included a preacher who couldn’t get his words right. I know it was a big enough deal to the son that when Bernard died a couple of years later, he told me in the family meeting that if I mispronounced Bernard during the service, he was going to stand up and correct me right then and there. His parents were nicer people than he was.
I assured him it wouldn’t be necessary and I practiced saying Bernard hundreds of times before the service. Like a true professional, I nailed the pronunciation part of the program. Even so, when I see him in heaven, I’m going to play it safe and call him Barney.
When I see Eileen, I’m going to hug her and tell her I’m sorry about her funeral.
She was a sweet lady from Wewoka, Oklahoma with a husband name Bernard and she deserved better.