On Sunday, November 2, 2008, I had the distinct privilege and honor to minister to family and friends of a member of our Marine Corps League - Westchester Detachment, of which I am the Chaplain.
Irwin Howard died of prostate cancer and I was fortunate to have spoken to him a few times over the phone, letting him know that he was missed by members of the league detachment and was asked for at each of our meetings.
I had visited him at his home on Saturday October 18th and on the following Monday he moved into a hospice facility in Hawthorne, New York.
On Wednesday the 22nd I visited him briefly while I was on my way to a wake for another member of our detachment, whose wife was tragically killed when she was struck by a car along side the road she was walking on.
A week later, on the 29th, I visited him again and had the fortunate opportunity to meet two of his children. I spent about an hour with them, learning about their father, their mother and the rest of their families.
Then on Friday morning, October 31st, a family member called me to inform me of Irwin's passing and had asked me if I would be available to perform a funeral service for them, to which I was humbled to have been asked and honored to do for them.
This would be my first funeral too.
Just like when I had preached in July, I knew that I would need to depend on God to help me formulate the sermon that would minister to the family and guests, but also to make sure that nothing of what was said was of my agenda.
I just wanted to remain faithful to the preaching of God's Word.
I had prayed Friday evening, beginning to write my sermon. Saturday I spent some more time in prayer and writing, took care of a few errands here at school for one of our missionaries in residence and then returned for some more prayer and preparation of my sermon.
Saturday evening began a time of fasting for the next day. All I wanted was to feed my spirit in worship, prayer and continued study of the Word so that I would not misrepresent God in my sermon.
I woke up around 7:30 a.m., to spend some more time in prayer, review my sermon and to be able to meet the family at the funeral home by 10:30 a.m., to go over anything before the service began at 11:00 a.m.
Here are a few facts that developed before and during the service:
- I learned that Irwin was Jewish but not a religious man.
- Some of his children were also Jewish but married spouses who were Roman Catholic.
- One family member stated in their eulogy that although Irwin was an atheist and did not believe in God, he lived a godly life.
- There was a menorah placed behind the casket that was draped with the American flag.
- One other family member said that while they knew Irwin did not believe in God, they believed that because he lived a godly life, he walked right through the pearly gates of heaven where God welcomed him.
The following is an edited version of what was spoken at the funeral service.
Good morning to everyone and on behalf of the family and the Marine Corps League, thank you for coming.
My name is Kurt Michaelson and I am the Chaplain for the Marine Corps League in Westchester and I had the distinct privilege to spend a very brief amount of time with Irwin who died a few days ago.
A few members of the family have informed me that they would like to offer a eulogy this morning and when they have conculded, I will then return to deliver the message.
Let us pray as today's service begins.
"Our Loving Eternal and Heavenly Father, as we meet this morning to remember our dear friend and loved one, I ask you to be to us, the God of all comfort, and the God of all grace. Give us perspective as we face the reality of death and eternity and to grow in the proper understanding of Your truths of life found in Your Holy Word. I ask this in the name of Your Son Jesus Christ, AMEN."
Eulogy from family members.Message - John 11:17-27, Isaiah 53:3-4, 61:1-3
(Note to the reader: Before I began to preach, I hesitated for a few seconds as I looked down to my Bible at Isaiah 61:1-3, where I was only going to read verse three, but I felt a strong conviction in my heart by God, to read all three verses so that it would be understood in its full context and not just a portion of it.)
I read the following verses from Isaiah 61:1-3 that says:
1 “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, because the LORD has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn,
(I read this next verse slowly and deliberately, pausing briefly at each coma and looking out to the family and friends.)
3 To console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.”
Today, I want to point out two verses of Scripture from the book of Psalms that reflect this man's life, whom we are mourning.
Would the children please stand?
First, in Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward.” The Psalmist was referring to the blessing that children are in building a family, specifically the ability to keep the family name alive on earth.
Thank you. You may be seated.
Next, I would like to ask for the grandchildren to stand.
The second is from Psalm 128:6, which says, “Yes, may you see your children’s children. Peace be upon Israel!” This is evident in his life, as a promise fulfilled by God that saw the joy of an offspring continued beyond his days.
Thank you. You may be seated.
There is a passage from the New Testament that I would like to share with you, concerning two sisters and the death of their brother.
In John chapter 11:1-16, we read that Mary, Martha and Lazarus were all very close to Jesus during His earthly life and ministry. When Lazarus became severely ill, a message was sent to Jesus to inform Him so that He may come and comfort His dear friend. I am sure that Mary and Martha had possibly thought that the LORD would come and heal their beloved brother too, having heard of His many miracles that He had done.
After waiting a few days, the LORD travelled then to Bethany, to meet Mary and Martha as they were in mourning over the death of their brother Lazarus.
Upon hearing news that the LORD was nearing Bethany, Martha got up and rushed out to meet the LORD and she said to Him, “LORD, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” And Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
Martha replied saying, “Yes, LORD, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
When Martha had said that she believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, this was not an intellectual acknowledgement of who Jesus said He was, but where the Greek language has translated the word pistueo which means, by implication to entrust, especially one’s spiritual well being to Christ.
The LORD still had not arrived yet into town and now Mary had rushed out to meet the LORD, when her sister had returned and told her that Jesus was asking for her. Falling down at his feet Mary said to Jesus while weeping, “LORD, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Read out loud John 11:33-37.
And later we learn that Lazarus was indeed raised from the dead and that many of the Jews who were there believed the things which Jesus did and believed on him (v. 45).
In this entire passage, we find five very important things in Jesus as He met with Martha and Mary concerning their brother Lazarus.
- He loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus (11:5). This type of love is described in Greek as a fondness or a love that is dear to a person, often seen among cousins, uncles and aunts in a family, even among friends who are like family. In the Marine Corps that certainly exists.
- He comforted and showed compassion to Martha and Mary in their time of mourning and despair. Though their brother was dead, He said that through Him there was eternal life beyond the grave.
- Martha and Mary found consolation in the LORD more than they did in those that surrounded them in mourning. They both rushed out to meet Jesus who was coming to see them.
- He showed his human side of emotion, weeping when Lazarus died.
- He brought hope to them regarding eternal life, where He would soon face His death on the cross, where He gave Himself for our sins (Gal 1:4) defeating death, hell and the grave through His resurrection.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah says of the sin-bearing servant, he would be a man of many sorrows, familiar with bearing the burden our griefs and carry our sorrows (Isaiah 53:3-4). Jesus had carried the burden of anguish and sorrow of Lazarus’ death and He carries your burden of griefs today too.
Notice that the word griefs is plural meaning many and there are many who are grieving here today.
When we mourn over the loss of a loved one, it is my hope and prayer that those who are grieving will see Christ in those who are mourning with them.
It is my hope, prayer and sincere desire for the friends and family of Irwin, that all of those who mourn, would be comforted and consoled by the Holy Spirit of God, where beauty would be given for their ashes, the oil of joy for their mourning and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness which they now feel.
Today, through Irwin's death, God has given us an opportunity to confront our own mortality, to personally reevaluate our lives and turn to Him while there is still time.
Some of you feel that God could never forgive you of the sins you have committed and you would be right. You and I are sinners by nature and we deserve a physical death and a spiritual death. We deserve an eternal death as a just punishment for our sins.
In God’s infinite love for you, He reconciled you to Himself. He was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself not counting your sins against you, rather they were charged against His Son, for you. But God demonstrated His love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Romans 5:8) that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17, NKJV).
The psalmist wrote (Psalm 90:12, NKJV), “So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”
The apostle James wrote saying, “whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.” (James 4:14, NKJV).
Today, if you have heard God’s voice, please do not harden your hearts. The writer of the book of Hebrews says that we can boldly come to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16).
May the LORD give us grace to properly consider how few the number of our days are and to quickly reconcile our sins against God, through His Son, through repentance and faith in His Son.
I then called for members of the Marine Corps League and Korean War Veterans Association, to come forward to render a last salute to their departed brother Marine.
Then, turning to the casket I said, "Shalom chavarim, shalom chavarim. Shalom le’hitra’ot. Shalom chavarim."
And translated in English this means, "Good-bye my friend, good-bye my friend. Good-bye, until the next time. Good-bye my friend."
The funeral director then informed everyone regarding the procession route and what would take place next.
When everyone had arrived at the cemetery, the Marines had been patiently waiting at the cemetery too since 0800, standing guard over the burial plot waiting for one of their own.
Family pallbearers then brought the body to the grave and placed it on the support frame, for the final portion of the funeral service.
Prayer at the cemetery
"Almighty God, our Father in Heaven, in your sovereign love you created this man in Your image and likeness, our loved one and friend. From the dust of the ground you created man and there we return at the end of our days.
We thank You for the privilege of knowing Irwin and the friendship we have had with him before his death. We thank You for the way he influenced the lives of many, and for Your grace through difficult times his family and friends have endured during the last days of his life. We are grateful for Your Love and amazing Grace; You, who sent us the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. You who have prepared a place for all who trust in You, and who alone are worthy of all Glory, Honor and Praise.
Almighty God and Heavenly Father may we turn to You for strength to sustain us in our weakness, may we turn to You for comfort in our affliction and pain, may we turn to You for grace and mercy in our sin against You and may You walk with us this day and forevermore. I ask this in the name of Your Son Jesus Christ, AMEN."
In closing, I would like to read the following verses to the family and friends gathered here today:
"The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." Numbers 6:24-26.
One Marine bugler played Taps and then the other two proceeded to fold the American flag and present it to one of Irwin's sons. It was a very emotional time as the flag was presented and the rest of the family watched.
This concluded the service.
This was extremely difficult to do since it was my very first funeral and had such a mix of things that developed up to and including the service.
I knew that I would not be deterred from preaching the Gospel to approximately 50-60 people who were in attendance that morning. My sermon lasted no longer than 15-minutes too, by God's grace.
I asked of the LORD to calm me and to give me strength, to remove myself from what would be seen and heard where they would only hear the Lord Jesus Christ. I asked for grace to speak in love to all in attendance and I am grateful to God that those requests were answered.
In the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans he said, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel (of Christ), for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek." (Romans 1:16, NKJV, emphasis mine) and this verse was my encouragement regarding my sermon.
I knew that by standing behind the pulpit to minister to the family and friends who were there that day, I would be held accountable and responsible to God, with the task of presenting the message of salvation, hope and grace through faith in Jesus Christ. I could not waiver on that at all and betray the LORD.
As Taps was playing, I had closed my eyes and turned my head up towards the sun, still hoping that I was faithful to preach God's Word to the people this morning.
With my focus on the LORD at that moment, as the notes to the song were playing I heard within me, "You were faithful," and I cried when I heard this.
I just wanted to be faithful to the preaching of the Gospel and I am humbled by God's acknowledgement that I was.The rest would be up to God and those who heard the Gospel. I could do nothing more than preach the truth in love, in meekness and fear, giving people the hope that is within me (Ephesians 4:15, 1 Peter 3:15).
I could not have done any of this on my own at all and I am grateful for God's strength and grace to faithfully preach His Word, to all who needed to hear.
When I was asked to perform the funeral, I had called Kristi shortly thereafter and asked her to come with me, to support me and without hesitation, she did. Once again, her prayer for me before the service was heart-felt, spirit led and filled with the Word of God, to encourage me and give me strength.
I thank God for her that she came with me.
Yesterday, I received this email from our league detachment Commandant:
I wanted to thank you for the special attention and comforting words you provided at the service for Win Howard on Sunday.
Your efforts as Detachment Chaplain are greatly appreciated by all the members. You showed the true spirit of "Semper Fidelis" and made the Detachment proud in honoring one of our own.
MCL Westchester County
"But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear." 2 Timothy 4:17, NKJV.
Meyers, R. (2006). e-Sword. The sword of the Lord with an electronic edge (Verson 7.8) [Computer software].
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.