I’ve Seen Strange Things: The Funeral That Was Almost a Fist Fight (Timothy Raymond)
I tell my boys that if they ever find themselves in pastoral ministry, they’ll end up seeing some pretty wild and messy stuff. The image of the calm country parson in his clerical collar gently visiting with Lady Grantham whilst munching on cucumber sandwiches and chatting about pristine village life exists only in inane PBS dramas. In my experience, pastoral ministry is far more like a weird combination of the TV shows, Intervention, Jeopardy, and 24.
Below is the first in what will hopefully be an occasional miniseries chronicling bizarre, raw, and sometimes depressing, sometimes exhilarating ministry experiences I’ve had over the years. Enough time has passed and I’ll change the names and details so that nobody in my church will have a clue as to what or whom I’m describing. And this first one is about a guy who wasn’t even a member of our church. But it’s about a funeral that almost became a literal fistfight. And please overlook the grammatical irregularities. I hurriedly jotted this down as a journal entry a few hours after it happened.
A very strange and memorable thing happened to me today. To set the stage, earlier this week I was asked to perform the funeral for a man we’ll call “Frank,” a 74 year old war veteran who died last Sunday from pneumonia. Throughout the week I had been in dialog with the man’s two sons. Let’s call them “Bruno” and “Ashton.”
These two boys could not be more different. Though Bruno is in his 50’s, he has never worked a steady job and has always lived with his parents. He is notably overweight, sports a mullet, dresses like a cheap mechanic, and though he does not have a beard I have never seen him clean shaven. Furthermore, he clearly has some mental deficiencies and apparently a history of violent behavior. The night his father died, Bruno and Ashton got into a disagreement in the hospital over the details of their father’s funeral. During the disagreement Bruno punched Ashton in the jaw and only backed down once when Ashton threatened to call hospital security.
Ashton, on the other hand, is a polished, well-dressed, articulate husband and father who has obviously experienced some degree of financial success. I don’t know his profession but he speaks and dresses like a Fortune 500 businessman. He is four years Bruno’s senior. (The whole situation vaguely resembles that old Schwarzenegger/DeVito movie Twins.) Oddly enough, however, somehow Bruno became Frank’s power of attorney.
Anyhow, later in the week a conflict arose between Bruno and Ashton over the possibility of Ashton giving a eulogy at his father’s funeral. Ashton desired to do so to honor his father while Bruno firmly opposed the idea. Bruno initially appealed to me to forbid Ashton from giving a eulogy, but I could see no reason to prohibit it. As Frank’s son, Ashton had every right to give a eulogy. Later in the week, however, Bruno was claiming that Frank’s dying wish was that no one give eulogies at the funeral. That sounded suspect to me, so I did not prohibit Ashton from eulogizing. I organized a funeral service and included a slot for Ashton to say a few words.
Everything was going along smoothly until this morning around 10:50 (the funeral was to begin at 11:00). It was at this point that the funeral director called me aside and told me about “a situation.” He brought me back into a darkly lit room in the funeral home where he then informed me that Bruno promised to literally haul Ashton’s backside out of the funeral service if he stood up to speak. We were discussing what to do when suddenly Bruno walked in on the conversation.
The entire thing then turned into a scene from The Godfather. Imagine hostile middle-aged men in a dimly lit but ornate parlor wearing uncomfortable suits and having intense disagreements peppered with profanity. Everybody was awkwardly looking at one another, unsure of what to do, and for some reason, at this point, I found unusual courage to speak up and became the default defender of Ashton’s right to eulogize. From a human perspective, I think I was unusually bold because, first, it was clear that Bruno was acting irrational and clearly in the wrong, and second, I thought I could take Bruno in a fight, if it came to it (hate to confess I was thinking such thoughts!). I told Bruno that his brother had every right to give a eulogy at the funeral and that he should not oppose him. At this, Bruno began using intense vulgarity and threatened his brother with violence. Bruno reiterated the “dying wish” of his father.
At this point I called on Bruno to be completely honest with us and to tell us the truth about his father’s so-called dying wish. Bruno proceeded to invoke God to literally damn him to hell if he was lying. I wasn’t sure where to go after this, so I took a different approach. I reminded Bruno that he had invited me to lead the funeral. Therefore, he should trust my judgment in designing and leading the service. Bruno reiterated his threat to physically haul his brother out of the room in the event he got up to speak.
At this, Ashton’s strapping teenage son, who’s heading into the Marine Corp in a few weeks, stepped up and said that he’d defend his father if Bruno attempted to touch him. Bruno could see that he was outnumbered but then promised that if Ashton told any lies about his father that Bruno would knock Ashton on his rear-end (though he used somewhat different terminology to describe this action). By this time it was around 11:08 and there were probably 35 people waiting uncomfortably in the funeral home chapel.
As we left the room and headed toward the chapel, one of the employees at the funeral home turned and said to me, “Of all people, you’re probably most at risk of being attacked by Bruno” (since I had obviously and shamelessly contradicted Bruno). “But if he comes at you, don’t worry; we’ll be in there on top of him.” I don’t remember if it was that same employee or another but someone then said to me, “But you look like you could handle yourself.” That was actually encouraging to hear.
Though trembling from anxiety and from an emotional verbal confrontation, I immediately took the lectern and began to lead the service, trying to act as if nothing was wrong. I did not know this until later but at this same time the funeral director summoned the local police to come to the funeral home to stand by in the event something broke out. I saw the police car out front after the service.
Thankfully, nothing happened during the funeral or after. I led my part, Ashton gave a wonderful eulogy honoring his father, and Bruno remained in his seat. After the funeral I was able to have a good laugh with the funeral director over the whole thing. But for a few minutes there I felt as if I were in a war zone.
During our chat, the funeral director told me something I never would have anticipated. Since funerals often gather family members who are at odds with one another, verbal and physical altercations are actually fairly common and the funeral employees often have to function as “bouncers.” Who’d of known? Pastors, be prepared!
Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.