The Most Common Emotion at Funerals


I had an old friend who, for reasons real or imagined and which no longer even matter, turned away from me in anger long ago and didn’t speak to me for almost twenty years. Then something changed. His wife got terminal cancer. Not long ago, my Marilyn and I drove thirty-two hundred miles over five days to attend the funeral of his wife, to be of comfort to him. With sincere tears in his eyes, he told me it meant the world to him that we did.

Now, how can that be? What changed? What makes that kind of relationship transformation possible? Because in the real world, that’s not possible. The traffic of guilt in relationships runs down both sides of that street, and the accidents are numerous and commonly fatal. Have you been run off the road lately? Then you know how real life works.

I used to think that the most common emotion at a funeral was grief. Then, as years passed, I thought it was guilt. Now I think I have learned that it’s regret. I hear it behind so many spoken and unspoken words. I see it behind the eyes that have lost the ability to cry. Regret. All the things that could have been and never were because there was too much counting of offenses going on.

At the funeral of my old friend’s wife, what surprised me was how both of us were so comfortable in our own skin and in each other’s presence. There was no shame or guilt, no regret or bitterness. By the grace of God, genuine forgiveness had dismantled all the barriers so that both of us could be touched by the comfort of human love and honest sympathy, all because along the journey, the costly work of forgiveness got done. That work left only a freedom in each other’s presence that only the love and grace of God could account for. We were simply at home with each other.

Yet there was an unnecessary sorrow present that had no place there. There was an elephant in the room . . . a legacy within my friend’s wider family. It chilled the room and froze out a healing love that was deeply needed. It limited the many conversations that should have been had that just never happened. Tragically, the elephant was completely unresponsive when my old friend was so humbly holding out grace and love to all those who had fed that elephant for years.

We all know people and families like this. Yet have we ever stopped to consider that it might be us, might be me, might be our family? Are there elephants that have to be dealt with while the time is still available to do so? If you are reading this, there may very well still be time.

I do know this: forgiveness offers the chance at the grace of honest reconciliation, an opportunity at life together rather than death together. I felt it in the embrace my old friend gave me when it seemed he would never let go. I saw it in his eyes and read it in his tears.

While forgiveness never forgets the past, it is no longer trapped by it, held in bondage to it. I heard that in my friend’s voice on the phone just a few weeks later as we talked about the events of those days and what the future held for us as friends.

For us forgiveness has opened up a wider and fuller future. It’s spring here this morning, and the promise of life is everywhere. I see it on the trees in my yard. They are like old friends to me. Well, actually they are like old family, really, because they are.

I have a tree on my front lawn named Florence. I have another named Tina and another named Vince. My Marilyn and I planted them as we lost parents: memorials to lives that were meant to be remembered, even for all their raggedness.

Recently my old friend and I planted a tree in my yard named in honor of his wife. This morning I looked out on her and thought to myself, Isn’t it life-giving when forgiveness does its work?

Then I thought, I think I’ll give my old friend a call and ask him how he is doing.

This is an excerpt from Joseph: A Story About a Family written by Stephen V. Elliott. Essentially, all of life revolves around two sets of relationships: ours with God and ours with one another. In the pages of Joseph: A Story About A Family, Elliott unpacks one of the most commonly shared Old Testament stories, helping readers discover that God is findable in the midst of the relationships that shape and misshape everyday life. When all is said and done, Joseph’s story is a story about a family. Maybe even your family. When you buy a copy in November, we’ll send you one for free to share with a friend!


Stephen V. Elliott is the lead pastor at First Alliance Church. He is married to Marilyn, and in his spare time he likes to hunt and fish, read, travel, and garden.