Her funeral was on a sunny Spring day several years ago. My mom’s sister Jewel had struggled with cancer and finally succumbed.
She was in her 80s, so no one could say it came as a surprise. What did come as a surprise was how mobile she became post mortem…
At the time, I was a worship pastor and was not used to doing funerals. In fact, this would be my very first.
However I’d had a decent amount of experience in public speaking and felt comfortable in front of people. I could always be counted on for a whimsical outlook on life and my sarcastic and often silly sense of humor…
…all elements completely out of place in all the best eulogies.
Needless to say, I felt a bit off-balance as I walked into the Spry Funeral Home (ironic name considering “spry” is the last adjective to describe the demeanor of the residents there). I feined confidence as I greeted friends and family who’d come to pay their respects. As I worked the room, I was also mentally adjusting my speech, editing out the parts of Aunt Jewel’s life that might be seen as an embarrassment to my dear mother.
You see, my mom considered her sister Jewel a bit of a wild woman. In a family full of good little Southern Baptists, she was the sole heretic Methodist, having strayed from the true faith years ago. Tales of her exploits swept through our house over the years, as my little blond-haired momma spoke in hushed tones of Jewell’s wicked nights out spent going to dances at the local Methodist church.
“Wha…wha…why, David…(she would make these whooping sounds when leading up to something astounding), Jewel’s out almost every Friday night now, dancing at that Methodist church with men she hardly even knows. I’m glad your granddaddy’s not still alive to see it!”
Yes, sweet death is a welcomed comfort compared to watching your children descend into wanton Wesleyan jitterbuggery.
Seems she met quite a few men at those senior dances. After her first husband passed away, she then began what can only be called a spree of serial-marriages in her later years. When she finally passed, she’d married and out-lived three men, and was already working toward her fourth. No telling how many of them she might have nabbed if the clock hadn’t run out on her.
Now she was finally at rest, her dancing Methodist shoes quiet and still inside the open casket on the little platform. The platform where I’d soon deliver my first funeral sermon.
I was a nervous, sweaty wreck.
I placed my Bible and written notes on the pulpit, trying to look natural as if I’d done this a thousand times before. As I continued to smile at people I vaguely recognized from the past, I was avoiding the thing I knew I was supposed to do.
I hadn’t gone to look at Aunt Jewel yet. And I didn’t want to.
It’s not that I’m scared, seriously. I just think the whole “looking at a dead body” thing is terminally weird. I mean, as Christians we don’t believe the person is really “in there” anymore, right? They’ve gone to be with the Lord. So now I’m supposed to look at the shell they left behind?
It’s like honoring the husk after you already shucked the corn. What’s the point?
I finally forced myself to ignore my nervousness and walk up on that platform to do what I think is totally stupid: to look in the coffin.
Ok…there. I’m looking at a dead body in a coffin. Happy now? Only the problem is…she really doesn’t look like herself.
Now I know I’m losing it. I am quickly going out of my mind, trying to act all composed like I have any business delivering a funeral sermon. And to boot, I feel guilty that instead of grieving for Aunt Jewel’s loss or even my mom’s grief, all I really care about is how badly I’m about to bomb in front of all these people.
So I walk away quickly, sit down on the front row, and try to think clearly.
Recorded organ music plays. The service begins. I step up to the pulpit and pray for God to fill in for my lack of experience and ability.
And yes, it was probably the lousiest 20 minutes anyone has ever spent in a pulpit. I’m sure it was the worst those poor people ever spent in a pew. I can hardly remember anything much about what I said…which is just God having mercy on me. I only hope I managed to say her name correctly and didn’t offer up prayers to Buddha or Mohammed.
You lose major points for that in the Baptist Church. Trust me.
After the funeral home, we made the long trek to the cemetery. Another short service at the grave, and finally Aunt Jewel’s remains are lowered into the ground. We all go back to the house for a late lunch.
That reminds me…an old preacher friend of mine likes to say, “Young man, one day people are gonna say nice things over your body, bury you in the ground and go back to the fellowship hall to eat potato salad. So make sure you’re living for things that will live past you and ignoring the things that won’t!” What perfect perspective.
Some time passes and now it’s late afternoon. I look out the window and notice a van from the Spry funeral home has pulled up in front of my parent’s house. A chubby little bald man hops out and carries some of the flower arrangements with him to their front door.
“Wow,” I say to my parents, “this funeral home really gives terrific service. They even bring the flowers straight to your home!”
We invite the gentleman in, who is very polite but oddly sweating at an alarming rate. Immediately he asks if my mom and dad would speak with him in private. All three step into the kitchen and shut the door.
Less than a minute later, I hear my mother’s whooping alarm go off again.
“Wha…wha…wha…what do you mean it wasn’t her body?!?!”
Seems that I wasn’t as nervous at the funeral home as I thought. The reason Aunt Jewel didn’t look like herself wasn’t that I was losing it. It wasn’t that her body was simply showing the ravages of the disease she’d fought for over a year, like others had thought. No, it was something much more unexpected than that…
The funeral home had put the wrong little old lady in Aunt Jewel’s coffin. Seriously.
I thought to myself, “Who’d have thunk it, that my Aunt Jewel would pull off only the second resurrection in 2000 years!”
Seems that afternoon another family had shown up at the funeral home to check the body of their elderly family member. As soon as they saw the body decked out in the dress they’d carefully picked out, they’d immediately exclaimed, “That’s not Momma! What have you done with our Momma? And who’s that wearing Momma’s dress?!?!”
Yes, believe it or not, Aunt Jewel had once again proven light on her feet. Not only had she tripped the light fantastic at those Methodist dances, she’d now managed to skip out on her very own funeral and spend one more afternoon above sea level!
I was pretty proud of my mom and dad in the days after that. Even though the other family had a wholesale meltdown and went to the press the next day, my parents took it all in stride. After all, good Baptists know that was only Jewel’s body. The real Aunt Jewel had fox-trotted her way into the presence of Jesus several days before.
After Mom had a chance to take it all in, she calmly remarked, “At the funeral home, I was wondering what had happened to Jewel’s ring she’d been wearing. I just figured it had been lost. And people never look much like themselves at their funerals…although she did seem to be a lot smaller than I’d remembered her.”
As yet another Easter is upon us, I’m thankful for the confidence I saw in my mom and dad that day. How awesome is it that we can face the worst this world has to offer – death itself – and see it as only a minor inconvenience on the way to a glorious eternity. The same event that devastated another family became the source of laughter for us for years to come.
Why? Because we didn’t care about Aunt Jewel and take her seriously? Of course not.
No, what we didn’t take seriously was death. Jesus knocked the teeth out of that monster 2000 years ago when took everything it had to offer and came back alive again.
No, His body wasn’t just misplaced. He walked and talked on the earth again for 40 days after he rose. He ate and let the doubters touch the scars in His hands and side.
He did all this for several reasons, I believe. One, so that we could be forgiven of our sins and have a relationship with the Father that sin made impossible.
But also because I believe He hates seeing bullies get away with their abuse.
Death and the grave had been the source of way too much heartache and sorrow since the beginning. And He thought it was time we knew He’s not about to let death have the last word.
So here’s to Easter, Aunt Jewel and any loved ones you’ve lost along this bumpy journey we know as life. If they knew Jesus, please don’t take their absence too seriously, though I know you must miss them.
But Easter is here to remind us every day that death has been defeated and Satan is eternity’s biggest April Fool!
And don’t be surprised if we all get to heaven and discover Aunt Jewel has taught everyone there to fox trot.
Well…at least all the Methodists.
(And if you think I just made this up, read just one of the news accounts… http://www.waff.com/story/4374455/funeral-home-explains-procedure-for-preparing-the-deceased)