by Rev. Dr. Joshua Long, First Presbyterian of Harrison
“There’s a Lot of Love Baked in Those Funeral Potatoes.” .
“To everything, there is a season.” So says the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 3 – and it seems that he knew what he was talking about. In the Church of Jesus Christ (at least in the West), we are seeing quite a few “mainstay” activities going by the wayside. Gone are the days of Mother-Daughter banquets each year in May. We are also seeing fewer and fewer churches doing Vacation Bible School each year – it used to be that parents could send their children to one pretty much every week throughout the summer at some church in town as a form of cheap summer babysitting, but not anymore. I’ve even heard some of my friends who are pastors talking about how it’s time to re-invent, re-imagine, or perhaps just completely scrap the idea of Sunday School each week, as it’s apparently becoming passé. The “cool churches” no longer do anything as old-fashioned as that – so naturally, the “wannabe cool churches” are following that lead.
One thing that I hope never goes away, though I fear it might be, is the old-fashioned funeral dinner. Funeral dinners are an incredible example of the Beloved Community at work. If you’ve never been to one, let me explain it for you: after calling hours, the funeral itself, and a graveside service, the family and friends of the deceased are usually quite hungry. Grief is tiring work, and often people are too nervous or upset to eat much before a funeral. A meal, therefore – and a free one at that! – is quite a gift, especially since often there are family members who have come in out of town. Few restaurants are able to accommodate large parties, especially ones that want to linger and visit since they haven’t seen each other for a while and don’t know when they’ll see each other again. Many churches, therefore, have a group or committee who hosts these wonderful meals. In my home church where I grew up, it was the TLC committee. Here in Harrison, it’s just the Bereavement Committee, which sounds weird, but most understand this is a committee to minister to the bereaved, not a committee to cause bereavement. (At least, I hope so!) Whenever a member passes away, we offer their families this gift – and if they agree to it, our gym is transformed into a place where hurting people can receive love, care, and a shocking amount of carbs.
Because if you haven’t realized it yet, we grieve through carbs! Oh, the beautiful, delicious carbs that are consumed at funeral lunches! Deli platters are ordered for sandwiches. Mac and Cheese is also a must, as are at least two other pasta dishes – often a lasagna and a spaghetti bake. Baked beans also show up, again often more than one dish, no two made alike. Potato salads, macaroni salads, and pasta salads also show up in extraordinary variety. And of course, there are the funeral potatoes – that cheesy, delicious hash brown dish that always magically appears and is always scraped clean. I have a theory that somewhere in our Presbyterian by-laws there is a rule about how we cannot have a funeral dinner without someone making funeral potatoes, but I’ve never bothered to check for a proper reference. I just know that they’re delicious, and I look forward to them whenever they’re served.
Of course, there are healthy options, too. Salads also show up – broccoli salad, three bean salad, and usually a plan old garden salad also are served. Waldorf salad usually covers the fruit needs for the meal. And let’s not forget all the Jell-o dishes – Watergate salad (AKA “green fluff”) is a mainstay, along with the orange Jell-o with fruit suspended in it, and sometimes cherry fluff, too. And if one is really lucky, a strawberry pretzel salad makes an appearance – bridging the gap between healthy stuff and dessert. Because – oh, the desserts! Cakes, pies, cookies, all decadent, all made with love (or picked up from Kroger with love), and all full of carbs. Because did I mention? We grieve through carbs. And after so many savory carbs, one needs some sweet carbs to maintain one’s homeostasis.
It’s a lot of food – because there is a lot of love in the Beloved Community. The funeral dinner is a chance for the Church to say to people at their lowest: God loves you even now – and we love you, as well. I’ll tell you a secret, though: over the years, I’ve learned that it’s easier to host funeral dinners for some people than it is for others. If the deceased was someone who showed love – if they always brought dishes for these meals, if they visited the shut-ins, if they picked up people who could no longer drive, if they made calls and sent cards to those who were ill – then dishes for their dinners just show up without anyone really having to ask. If, however, the deceased was not a particularly warm or active person in the congregation, it can be like pulling teeth to get enough volunteers for their meal. Jesus really knew what He was talking about – with the measure we use, it will be measured to us!
Not long after I came to Harrison, the matriarch of the church passed away. Naturally, her funeral dinner was incredible – I think every dish in the church cookbook was made and served. No one went away hungry – we all were stuffed full of amazing, delicious carbs to aid in our grief. I’m sure more than one person went home afterwards and collapsed into a food coma. What made the meal stick in my mind, however, was the response of one of the deceased’s sons. She had had three sons, two of whom had remained practicing believers, and one of whom had, for a variety of reasons, fallen away from the church. He stayed stand-offish throughout most of the day’s events, even staying off by himself a bit during the meal. As the meal wound down, he came up to me, and with a look of bewilderment on his face, asked me, “Do you do this for all your members?” It took me a second, but I quickly realized what he was asking: do you really show this kind of love and care for each other all the time? Thankfully, I found the words to answer him: “We loved your Mom, and we want to show that one more time. We want to take care of her family as we all grieve together. But yes – while your Mom certainly was special, and while we may have pulled out all the stops for her, we do offer this for all our folks, no matter who they were or how they lived.” He went away shaking his head in wonder, and I pray that a seed was planted that will grow and perhaps bring him back to the practice of the faith he grew up learning here.
I know that more people work today, that people are busier today than ever, and that it’s harder and harder to find volunteers who are willing to take on these kinds of ministries. But if we cannot be the Beloved Community when people are hurting, when people are hungry, when people are vulnerable, then we will have failed greatly. Anyone who has personally been the recipient of this gift when a loved one dies (as I have) can tell you – it really is an incredible blessing. After all – there’s a lot of love baked in those funeral potatoes!
Soli Deo Gloria!