In my childhood I associated funerals with ice cream. My dad was a pastor, and when he would conduct a funeral it meant that the next Saturday evening our family would go to O’Dowd’s Dairy, on Route 46 in Northern New Jersey.
My father officiated quite often at burial services. He had an arrangement with a few local funeral directors; if someone needed a funeral service and they had no pastor of their own, my dad would be called upon to conduct the service.
Those were the days when most funerals took place in funeral homes, usually within days of when a person died. Today we often schedule “memorial services” long after the person’s death—and long after the person has been buried or cremated—but in my youth the typical pattern was for family and friends to hold a “viewing” in a funeral home for a day or so, followed by a service in the same place.
The funeral directors always paid $25 per service and in those days that meant an enjoyable time at O’Dowd’s—we would each order their biggest sundae—with some cash left over.
O’Dowd’s is gone. It burned down in the early 1980s. When I googled the name recently, I came upon a site where folks were talking about eating places where their families went for treats in their childhoods. Someone mentioned O’Dowd’s and someone else reported the dairy’s demise. That was sad news. But for me it was probably all for the best. I might have gone back sometime when I was in Northern New Jersey, only to discover that the sundaes at O’Dowd’s did not live up to my culinary memories.
I heard a pastoral theology person say recently that conducting funerals for folks who are not churchgoers is a bad idea. He saw the practice as encouraging people to “use religion” for their own purposes. That’s not the way my father saw it. Conducting those services for him was an important aspect of ministry. He had memorized long passages from the King James Bible, and most of what he did in these “guest clergy” appearances was to quote a lot of Scripture. He was convinced that when he presented these biblical passages to the unchurched, the Lord would bless what he was doing. “God’s Word will not return unto Him void,” he would say.
There were a couple of times in my childhood when a funeral did not make me think of ice cream. When two of my grandfathers died, I thought a lot about heaven and hell and the fragility of our earthly lives. That often happens when a loved one dies—and it doesn’t just happen to people of faith. Hopes and longings deeper than a desire for ice cream break through in our lives. That’s why I am glad my father saw it as important to quote Scripture at funerals where the families and friends had no other pastor of their own.