Whoever said dead men don’t tell tales wasn’t sitting in my Stockton, CA, pastor’s office fifteen years ago when the phone rang. It was the funeral director calling from Wallace-Martin Funeral Home to ask for my help with a funeral service.
The director explained that the funeral was prearranged months prior by the deceased himself. The man had chosen his flowers, casket and music. Nothing too odd about prearranged funerals, except this man had come to the funeral home alone – a foreshadowing of coming events.
At the close of their meeting, the man made a modest prediction. “Don’t expect a crowd.” In fact, likely as not, he expected an empty chapel.
I told him that I’d be happy to help and began planning my remarks.
On the day of the funeral, I arrived early and entered the chapel where the director met me and handed me the funeral record and honorarium. Then he ushered me through an empty chapel where we sat on the front row — waiting.
We spent the next several minutes discussing the unusual situation and wondering how it might feel to approach life’s end, yet expecting no one at your funeral. It seemed to us that the whole scenario was everyman’s fear – the fear of having no one care whether you were alive or dead.
It quickly became apparent that this was not the set of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” No one was coming. So, after a respectable period of time, I stood, thanked the director and started walking toward the door.
“Aren’t you going to preach the funeral sermon?” he asked.
“Right!” I said, waving a sarcastic hand at the empty chapel.
“Hey, he paid for a funeral. He should get one.”
The director was insistent. He had promised the man that he would get everything he had paid for.
So, breathing a breath of resignation, I took my spot at the lectern and preached for the next fifteen minutes. Not knowing enough about the man, my sermon took a non-controversial route. I spoke of God’s love for people everywhere, even those who are unknown to us.
The man’s life reminded me of a biblical parable* about servants who were entrusted with an amount roughly equivalent to three months’ wages to invest on behalf of their king.
Apparently the king was a pretty hard man who usually rewarded people by letting them keep their heads. Two of the men did well. One doubled the investment and another increased it by half. Happily, they were well rewarded and given their own kingdoms.
However, the focus of the parable seems to be on a third man. Fearful of his king, this man buried the treasure so as to not lose a cent. When that servant returned with only his original principal, the king was furious; so much so that scripture implies that the King had the man killed.
If I was to speculate, I’d have to say that the man I buried that day was similar to the man in the parable – both had likely sought to live life without risk. The man in the casket seemed to be a man free of enemies and of friends — silent of criticism, silent of praise.
I’ve done many funerals since that day – some for saints and some for scoundrels. But this man’s story has always served to remind me that life is not without risks and those who seek to avoid risk are often sentenced to a solitary life. This isn’t the way I want to die, and I’m certain it’s not the way God intends us to live.