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Funeral Women

Small-town church life in the upper Midwest means that we do funerals—quite a few. Iowa, for instance, is among the most elderly states in the Union. 

Funerals have recently received quite a bit of theological reflection (see The Good Funeral by Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch). I want to focus, however, on the post-funeral, “lunch” or “coffee-time” or “reception” and the valiant women who run them. (Yes, I realize there is an inherent gender-role stereotyping here. A few men do actually help, but usually back in the kitchen—running the dishwasher, etc.)

Mainly, I’m struck by these women’s perseverance, their faithfulness. To be part of this crew is not to be part of some incidental or dormant committee. You know you will be called on to serve, and then perhaps in a week or two, called again. Their service goes unnoticed, taken for granted. Funeral directors call their leader and the rest magically takes care of itself.

Please also know these women are not the stereotyped doddering “little-old-ladies,” supposedly just grateful and eager for an opportunity to “get out.” They are active, capable women, usually in their sixties. Some have husbands who went to Vietnam. Others, I would guess, were once hippies who protested the war. Now they are early retirees or working part-time, busy and scheduled, prolific in their volunteerism.

I am often struck by the contrast between the funeral crew and the one whose funeral it is. By no means are the funerals always for a “dear friend” or a “pillar of the church.” Even in a town that hasn’t quite got the notice that Christendom is over, there are still plenty of marginal members, those whose tie to the church is pretty indirect.

And there are also plenty of people in the church who could serve on the funeral committee, but somehow “just can’t” or “aren’t into that sort of thing,” or have too many hands of bridge to play. Through it all, I never hear a grumble from the funeral women.

They must be far better people than I, never stopping to wonder to themselves why they’re spending their afternoon pouring coffee and washing dishes, when we all know that the recently departed or his wife never lifted a finger in such a manner. People are glad to receive the ministries of the church, and sometimes are even a bit demanding. But they are often callously neglectful of the fact that these ministries require people, but even more that they too could serve in this way.

Of course, the funeral women’s ministry is simply the Gospel embodied. I’m well aware that the church of Jesus doesn’t run on a quid-pro-quo ethic. We don’t keep score, or at least, we shouldn’t. Grace, mercy, service, and love animate us.

“Hateful” and “hypocritical”—pollsters tell us that these are the words most commonly used to describe Christians these days. And when we try to point to what Christianity looks like, it seems like we always rely on Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, or the anonymous donor who puts $20 gold pieces in the Salvation Army kettle. Are we overly enamored with the heroic and random acts of kindness?

Maybe when the world accuses us or asks us what following Jesus looks like, we should more readily point to the funeral women, and their simple help, done consistently, without asking anything in return. Or might we ever turn the tables, and ask what does it tell us about ourselves and our culture that we never notice the funeral women or give them their due? But, of course, that’s the very point. They aren’t asking for any due.

I don’t want to sound defensive of Christians or trumpeting of our “goodness.” That is certainly the last thing the funeral women want to do. I am simply impressed by the quiet faithfulness, the underappreciated labor, the under-the-radar love displayed again and again by these women.

As I write this, it occurs to me that today’s funeral women might be a lot like those first-century funeral women we meet in the Easter stories. Faithful, far ahead of most of us, and so quickly forgotten in the frenzy.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Beautiful! Thanks for this fitting homage to faithfulness behind the scenes, the body of Christ in action.

  • Susan Buist says:

    I have said before that when I "grow up" (into my 60s or 80s, that is), that I want to be one of the "kitchen ladies." I want their knowledge of where to find the serving spoons and coffee pots and monogrammed church plates, and their muscles to scrub the meatloaf pans that get me down whenever I try to invade that sacred space and help out.

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    At Hope Church in Holland the wonderful "funeral women" bring out the silver tea service and actually pour the tea/coffee at the end of the buffet line. It is gracious and classy.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    A reminder that, from the very earliest days that there was such a thing as a definable "church," one of its characteristics has been its charity toward the dying….burying the poor, in particular. This practice, then, is far more than a midwestern "church lady" phenomenon. It has always been one of the fundamentals for a healthy body of Christ-followers. (Though ham buns were not likely on the board after a first century burial….) Thanks, Steve

  • Leanne Van Dyk says:

    Quiet faithfuless and under-appreciated labor. Thanks for noticing this, Steve, and naming it.

  • Harriette says:

    This phenomenon occurs in Canada too. Thanks for drawing attention to it. My mother-in-law was one of these ladies for many years until her mobility deteriorated.

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