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The Family Mess

There are two events that bring families together – weddings and funerals. Both reveal much about the dysfunctional family. Weddings can produce a temporary armistice on the battleground of an eclectic gaggle of parents, ex-spouses, in-laws and “out-laws”,aunts and uncles, as well as that cousin no one wants to talk about. Civility reigns at for least a few hours into the reception when alcohol induced inhibition kicks in.

The funeral can also reveal family dysfunction. Clergy and funeral directors often find themselves caught in the family-feud crossfire. Much like a wedding, grieving families often bring elements of tension, resentment and bitterness into the arrangement meeting. Some families express embarrassment and struggle to know just what to say about the deceased. As a pastor and celebrant, I have faced the challenge of preparing a service with some interesting dynamics. A friend of one family said that it was best to take the deceased in limited doses. On one occasion, I prepared a service for a man whose wide reputation as a bigoted bully preceded him – “the elephant in the room”. A church member once told me that her husband would have to pay people to be his pallbearers. I sat with another family to plan the service and the tension engulfed the room like a thick cloud. In each case, the challenge was to find a way to celebrate a life few people enjoyed being around; to balance truth and compassion. I learned early on that even though the deceased was as mean as a rattlesnake, the funeral service is not the place to point that out. Here are some of the things I shared as a celebrant about one particularly controversial life.

I set the tone saying that the deceased was a complex man; that he was one of a kind. Even as I uttered those “funeral correct”words, the left side of my brain was saying,“That’s a polite way of saying that just about everybody disliked this jerk.” I pointed to the truth that, like all of us, he had many sides to his personality. Some people are triangles and some are rectangles. But this guy was an octagon! And your take on him depended on which side you of the octagon you encountered. He was a “preferred dish”, as a family friend delicately put it. He could be down-right ornery and lovingly compassionate. It was his way or no way, but he tenderly sacrificed so much for his invalid wife.He saw things as black or white yet, was artistically gifted – A NASCAR guy who liked classical music – a career military officer who enjoyed interior decorating.Go figure!

Families are complex. Relationships are messy. There are moments when it’s as if a spotlight shines on just one side of our multi-sided lives. I’ve felt the heat from that spotlight when I have behaved in surprising ways that brought me embarrassment.I have felt exposed by the light when acting like an idiot. And it would be easy for someone to judge who I am by one or two illuminated sides of my rectangular life. But I am so glad that my entire life is not summed up by those regrettable side moments. The truth is, some people make it so easy to dislike them from all sides.

My dad was one of those people. His behavior was embarrassing to the family. In the end, my dad and I rebuilt the bridge to each other. And that began when I saw my older brother take the first step. It set the example for other family members as well. Other bridges were rebuilt, and relationships restored. Now, that isn’t to say that our relationship with our dad was warm and fuzzy, but it was just workable. Thirty years after his death, I can still smile when I tell people that my dad was a real “Weird-mobile”. Complex people can drive us crazy, test our limits and push the boundaries of love. But, at the end of a life, we do the right thing. We bring dignity to their lives with gestures of respect.

I concluded that uncomfortable funeral service reminding everyone that honoring the departed is a sacred act. It is sacred,because every life is sacred and has value to someone.

Families tasked with “making proper arrangements” can embrace the opportunity to build bridges, experience forgiveness and embrace reconciliation. It simply takes one person to make the first move to initiate a domino effect of something beyond mere tolerance.  

When the service ended, I was concerned that the family might have been offended by what I had shared, but quite the contrary. I was approached by several family and friends of the deceased who thanked me for “saying what needed to be said with compassion.” Lesson learned. In celebrating a life, don’t portray the person as someone they were not. That would be not only disingenuous but insulting. Honesty with compassion helps bring closure. It can bring détente to dysfunctional families and help them understand their common ground of the wearying effects of living with a complex “octagon”.The one whom they buried or cremated was the ground zero of their family mess. They can now choose to build new bridges with each other of understanding, empathy and care.

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Greg Webber has served as pastor of churches in Kentucky, Michigan and Virginia. He currently serves as The Director of Aftercare, Certified Celebrant and Trained Survivor of Suicide Support Group Facilitatorfor Morrissett Funeral & Cremation Service. Contact him at greg@morrissett.com.

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