We just wanted to say,” the youngest daughter whispered, squeezing my forearm, staring at me through a haze of tears and mascara, “that we would really prefer there be no clowns at mom’s funeral.”
I nodded, slowly digesting the non-sequitur. The four of us—the deceased woman’s three professionally dressed, middle-aged daughters and me: her brand-new, twenty-eight-year-old pastor—had left her deathbed only moments earlier. As we stood in a hospital corridor sharing a box of scratchy tissues, my mind suddenly filled with images of colorful, costumed bodies tumbling out of tiny cars.
“Absolutely no clowns,” the oldest daughter reiterated.
“I understand,” I said, nodding somberly.
You only get one chance at your first last impression.
Clergy remember their first funeral. It’s a nerve-wracking experience. Sort of like a first piano recital in primary school, but with death.
Bumbling through a Sunday sermon can be forgivable—parishioners tend toward mercy when they know their minister is new. Seminary doesn’t cover financial planning, so making a misstep at a budget meeting is par for the course. In the few short months since I’d been ordained to the ministry in this rural Wisconsin church, I’d lost my master key —resulting in an expensive, entire-building re-key—and called the board secretary the wrong name for a month only to be graciously pardoned for both.
But a funeral?
In times of grief we all long for order, for a gravitas appropriately honoring the depth of our loss. It isn’t acceptable to flounder, no matter how green the clergy might be. In other words, it might be a pastor’s very first funeral, but it sure can’t look like it.
Three months into my first pastorate, a little white clapboard church in middle America’s soybean country, my heart shot through with adrenaline when a beloved matriarch of the church succumbed after a long battle with cancer.
“She took her last breath just a moment ago,” her niece told me over the phone. “The whole family is at the hospital. Will you come?”
I left our Lenten evening service in the hands of a few willing volunteers and hopped into my aging Toyota, driving through slush and snow, thankful I’d chosen to don somber colors and sensible shoes that morning.
The hospital corridor, dim in the evening light, overflowed with children and stepchildren in their forties and fifties, some in tears, others tending grandchildren or making calls. The niece who’d phoned ushered me into a hospital room.
“Pastor’s here,” she said. Those who’d gathered turned as one, quickly falling silent, all eyes on me.
I stepped to the head of the bed and laid a hand on the woman’s cooling forehead. Always touch the dead, a chaplain once told me. It lets the family know that you aren’t afraid, that God is present there with them, even in death.
Leading up to this, my first pastorate, I’d interned as a chaplain, first at a hospital and later at a hospice. Death didn’t scare me. What did was the likelihood of botching my first funeral.
Differences of Clowning Opinion
Determined to do God and this dear woman a proper service, I led those who’d gathered in the Lord’s Prayer. Half the pray-ers stumbled over “debts and debtors.” It was then I remembered that the woman’s new husband—the man she married after being widowed a handful of years earlier—worshiped with the Methodists down the street.
As the nurse came to prepare the body for the coroner, the family regrouped in the hallway. It was then that the daughters pulled me aside to impress upon me the importance of banning clowns.
When the coroner arrived, I walked beside the body as he wheeled her out. People often have trouble leaving the body of their loved one, the same chaplain had said. If you walk beside it until on its way to the hearse, your presence can provide a lot of comfort.
At the end of the hallway, waiting for the elevators, the woman’s husband stopped me for a hug.
“We will need to talk about the funeral,” he said, leaning in so close I could hear the high-pitched whistle of his hearing aid. “It would be great if it could feature some clowning. It can be very dignified, you know.”
Making A Deal With The Clowns
“I think I’m being hazed,” I told my husband later that night.
“Was anyone laughing?” he asked.
“No. That’s what worries me.”
The next days brought a flurry of preparations—flowers and bulletins, calls to the funeral director and the organist and the volunteers who would arrange the luncheon in the church basement after the service.
I met with a dozen or so members of the woman’s family, all of them soft-spoken, lifelong Midwesterners, each of them firmly choosing a side on whether or not the memorial service should involve circus performers.
It’s fairly standard practice to try to accommodate the wishes of the family member closest to the deceased at a funeral. Often that is a spouse or partner, but this woman had remarried recently, leaving me in a bind about whether to honor the explicit instructions of her daughters or her new husband.
Her first husband had been a solemn and reserved farmer, working the land and raising pigs, the back of his neck creased and ruddy from countless hours on a tractor in the sun. His funeral—officiated by my predecessor only a handful of years prior—had a stately feel.
Her children patiently put up with their mother’s new hobby—it made her happy, and her new husband was a gentle and warm-hearted man who seemed unaware of the stigma surrounding creepy clowns—but after her death, they wanted to remember her before all the face paint and the cheap wigs.
I can’t say I blamed them. I don’t plan to die any time soon, but I’ve already told my husband that if he uses one of those schlocky funeral home poems at my memorial service, I’ll haunt him for the rest of his life.
“I don’t even believe in that sort of thing,” I said. “But I will find a way.”
Caught in the middle, visions of my first funeral turning into Pennywise Goes to Church, I sought a compromise.
“What if we set up a display in the room off of the sanctuary to feature her clowning?” I asked. “We could put her costume next to representations of her other passions—quilts and paintings and pictures of her with family.” The daughters nodded vigorously. The husband sighed.
The day before the service a handful of the couple’s clowning friends dropped by my office to pay their respects as we finalized the preparations. They didn’t show up in costume, but I could tell they were the clowns, each ill at ease in street clothes without the mask of makeup.
That and one of them introduced himself to me as “Bobo.”
As we shuffled around the topics of death and grief, I expressed condolences along with words I never thought I’d need to say aloud in my church: “No oversized shoes at the funeral, please,” I said. “No floppy hats. No red noses. Definitely no seltzer water.” The incognito clowns hung their heads. One drew a sad mouth over his own frown in the air with his fingers.
The day of the funeral arrived, dreary in that way Wisconsin becomes when it’s worn itself out with gray winter days but isn’t sure what to try next. I wore my new clerical collar. The daughters read eulogies. The husband’s hands trembled as he held the hymnbook, tears running down his cheeks. The clowns sat together near the back and, to my immense relief, behaved themselves—not a squirt bottle in sight.
“Thank you,” her husband said to me afterward, pulling me in for a hug.
Whose dignity was I protecting?
“Thank you,” her middle daughter said. “She would have loved that.” I went home both relieved and uncertain. Would she have loved it?
The service felt proper and holy—no one would call me on the carpet for being irreverent. But if court jesters can speak truth to kings, why shouldn’t they be allowed to express the communal grief of a rural town, a country church, a blended family? Was I more concerned with her propriety or with my own?
A month went by before I learned her husband held a second funeral service for her at the Methodist church a few days after ours. That one featured clowns. I hear it was very dignified.
Cover photo by Aeviel Cabral.