Most of you know that my father died a few months ago. The process of tying up loose ends often requires going through memorabilia and papers. My father left an old briefcase with my name taped to the front so I brought it home to see what he wanted me to have. I was not surprised as I rummaged through the papers. I found a stack of sermon notes, old business cards, a collection of funeral notices, and other miscellaneous papers. There was also a notebook and two small journal type books.
The notebook, which my father had shown me a couple of times previously, contained a listing of all the people he had baptized and had joined the churches where he was pastor. It is quite an impressive list. A little over a year ago Daddy and I had a good time reading over the names and remembering the folks who had been touched by his ministry. There was also a journal listing all of the weddings my father had officiated during his ministry.
However, the item that really captured my attention was another journal type book. The book has a dark red, imitation leather-type cover, embossed with gold lettering and the words, “Pastor’s Record of Funerals.” I don’t know if pastors still keep these books with the advent of computers, but it was common practice back in the day. In fact, I personally have a similar book stashed away somewhere on the shelves of books in my office.
It appears that it was purchased in about 1954 at the cost of $1.00. It has held up well for nearly six decades. The book lists 118 funerals my father led between January of 1954 and the summer of 2011. The very first funeral was for Doris Turner who died of a heart attack. Although she was born in Wichita, Kansas, Doris was buried in Eads, Colorado, where Daddy was the pastor. Eads was a small town in the southeastern corner of Colorado and during his four year stay, I suspect Daddy did most of the funerals for folks in Eads, Kit Carson, and Wild Horse, Colorado. The fifteen people in attendance heard his first funeral sermon titled, “Death of a Friend.”
It appears that 1954 was a good year for dying in eastern Colorado as Daddy did eight more funerals that same year. That is a sizable number for that sparsely populated corner of the world. In August of that summer, Daddy did funerals, exactly one week apart, for two people who died from food poisoning. This is the first I have heard of that event. It makes me wonder if it was the talk of our little town. He also had back to back funerals for infants, not even listing first names other than “baby.” I imagine it was a very difficult year to be a pastor.
In September they held the funeral of Clarence Cordrey who was killed in a car accident. Under notations, Daddy wrote, “A wonderful Christian man – earth’s loss – heaven’s gain.” Apparently most of the people in town agreed with that assessment as 200 showed up to tell him goodbye. In contrast, only 50 people came to the funeral of Joe John Brown in 1956. The notation read, “Blind – physically and spiritually.” Can there be a greater contrast in eulogies?”
A funeral that I was particularly interested in occurred in August of 1963. I don’t remember the funeral but I do remember the death. A friend from church, Steve Robison, had gone to Missouri to spend a few weeks with relatives. I was twelve years old so he was probably about the same age. I remember one evening when the phone rang and my dad talked for a few minutes. It seems that Steve had been accidently electrocuted while in Missouri and for some reason they called my father. He had to go and tell Steve’s parents that their son was dead. I have often marveled at the difficulty of such a task, telling a parent that their child is dead.
There were other funerals that I am sure were not easy. Vic Saucerman, described as “a Christian giant” was a faithful member of our church. George Borland died in June of 1982 and Daddy described him as a “Great Friend!!!” Another name I remember was George Venerable who was described as “ready to go.” I have often wondered if such an attitude is ever really attainable.
I clearly remember Elva and Sam Davis who died about seven months apart in 1982. Sam was described as “a great friend and lover of children.” One thing I remember about Sam is that during the time when skateboards first became popular (yes, I am that old), Sam was concerned that my brother was too young to ride a skateboard. He designed and built a skateboard that allowed my brother to sit down and roll down the driveway. No doubt it was completely unsafe but that was back in the day when we were not afraid of scrapes and bruises. All I know is that it was a thoughtful gesture.
In August of 1992, Daddy preached the funeral of Frank Lewis at the church where I had just left as pastor. Frank had cancer and when I moved away at the first of the month, Frank had a difficult time telling me goodbye. He had not told anyone, including his family that he was dying, so when he stopped by my house to see me off, he really was telling me goodbye. I did wonder why it was such an emotional time for him. The family asked Daddy to do the funeral because they thought it was too much to ask me to make the long trip so soon after leaving.
The records for the last twenty years of Daddy’s ministry are dotted with the names of people I did not know. He preached all over the Texas panhandle and conducted services in numerous churches and cities. As he got older he seemed to have more comments about the individual being a “fine Christian” or “strong leader in the church.”
I don’t enjoy funerals but I have come to the conclusion that funerals are a valuable custom. It is an opportunity for folks to have good things said about them, even if they are not the best of people. The most difficult funeral I have ever had was for a man in our community that I did not know of anything good to say about him. My last encounter with him a few months before he died was when he threatened to beat me up. His kids were delinquents who occasionally stole stuff from our garage. I tried not to lie and make up a bunch of decent comments and I took comfort in the impression that his wife and family seemed relieved that he was gone.
I have had some great experiences as funerals. I was thrown out of a funeral, had to borrow money at a funeral, and got lost once with the hearse driver, among other things, however, I will save those stories for another time.
Daddy taught me a great deal about ministry as I watched him walk with folks through the valley of the shadow of death. He knew how to be a pastor and it is during times of grief when we most need a pastor. Daddy told me when I first began that I would never get rich doing funeral or weddings. He was right if you are simply thinking of honorariums. But, if you understand that true riches are far more than money, no doubt he would say that his life was much richer because of the opportunity to stand at the side of people during their most difficult days.
I am confident that all of those families experiencing grief would testify that their burden was eased by having someone to direct them to the grace of God. Without a doubt, His grace is the finest resource we have for dealing with the difficult times of life.