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“Nothing but the truth” may sway a courtroom jury—but it tends to spoil a good funeral.

Whenever I drive home from a funeral, I worry about my kids not being able to dig up enough honorable things to say about me once I’ve been dressed out in a coffin beneath the pulpit. My offspring, on the occasion of my death, will take turns at the lectern, scripts in hand. They’ll clear their throats, and, like archeologists displaying pottery shards and fragments of burnished bone, present their findings to the gathered mourners. But what will they say?

Lord knows, I was too preoccupied with my work during my children’s tender years. What have I done to encourage my little family—to help my daughter conquer her fear of algebra? To improve my son’s tennis game or dry his tears when a bully belittled him? To explain to him the way of a man with a maid? To convince my kids that God loves them even when they can’t figure God out?

I’m hardly a scoundrel. But in their last-minute preparations and hasty searching through outdated planners, faded photos, and the far recesses of their memories, will my kids be able to come up with a page of attributes to read before the solemn assembly?

Every funeral reminds me that yet another saint has been laid to rest. But why always a saint? What made the person such a shining light? I compare myself with friends and colleagues. Some, by all appearances, are beacons of piety and virtue. But others are a lot like me, their “halos” hardly glowing. And that thought brings comfort and reassurance. Maybe I’m not all that deficient in virtue after all. 

At my funeral, the photo display will include images of the old man and the young man and the grinning baby, an aggregate of milestones in a long and well-lived life. The pet white rabbits will be there; the first bike; the family on a picnic; the graduation portraits showing confidence and no pimples. The honeymoon shot of a young man aglow with tentative triumph, radiant bride on his arm. The couple’s children in advancing stages of maturation, always smiling and civil. A steady march toward successful aging. An exhibition of benign, if not virtuous, living. As if the old man had never been disappointed, had never in his life damned anything, had not clenched his fists or shed tears when things went terribly awry. Had not agonized over his doubts about God and fretted and fumed when his children frustrated him. Had never antagonized his forbearing wife or withheld his affection just to spite her. No, the visitors will ooh and aah over the photos and make comments about how well the deceased had aged and what a lovely family he had.

The point of a funeral service is to eulogize, to “speak or write in high praise of.” To extol. “Nothing but the truth” may sway a courtroom jury—but it tends to spoil a good funeral. Full disclosure has no place among mourners. The only funeral at which the whole truth would not cast a pall on the celebration of a life well-lived, had the dead man stayed in his tomb, was that of our Lord and Savior. But there had been no time for a eulogy, it being hard on the Sabbath when Jesus spoke his last words—barely enough time to wrap him up and deposit him behind a hastily rolled stone. By the time a service could be arranged for, the Subject had escaped.

Because of that great escape, I need not worry about my kids finding dirt on me, nor fear lest they come across mucky linens. The Risen One has swept away my dirt, clothed me in robes of righteousness. So I’m not all that concerned, after all, whether the minister’s approbatory texts honestly describe my life. They will not. But that’s okay. With those texts we eulogize not the casketed corpse but the living Christ. And give our kids permission to say good things while overlooking the shabby and the ignoble. 

It’s all good.

About the Author

Hank Ottens is a retired orthopedic surgeon and an active gardener, photographer, and singer. He attends Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Mich.

See comments (3)


A delightful article. Thank you. My sentiments exactly!

This essay raises two distinct questions which have bothered me for 50 years. I "was" a Methodist in my childhood and a Baptist for the next 25 years. They have a saying, "once saved, always saved" but they have rules to decide if a person was ever really, really saved. Then I twice read The Institutes and decided that Calvin's analysis of Christianity had the tighter tautology of theology. After rejecting OPC/Reconstructionism . . .  only Presbyterians I knew, I discovered the CRC. 

If the CRC revised the Baptist motto to "once elect, always elect" and stopped there . . . but the Devil is in the details. The CRC has different details and different work-arounds from Baptists and from Jews.

The two questions, how do you know that the third parties to whom you refer are elect and how do you know that you are elect? I have not discovered any procedure to determine the state of any specific person's "saintliness". Or is it a pro-forma title of respect?

I tend to think in Venn Diagrams but no one uses it to analyze theological problems. Consider the set of all the elect (e.g. saved, regenerate, born again . . . ), the sets of all baptized as infants, as adults, all who invited Jesus into their herats, all who joined a church, all who try to love God and/or be good neighbors . . . . How might these sets be related if a Venn Diagram was drawn?


Bill Wald, 1ST Everett (WA) CRC 



Thanks for the interesting analysis and proposals regarding the doctrine of election.  My reference to saints has nothing to do with election.  On that issue, I'm as perplexed as you seem to be.  I was merely reflecting that eulogies are kind to the deceased, and put the best face on them.  Based on what the Bible does say about election, odds are that not everyone eulogized, even in a CRC, are among the sheep.