News and Views

Naming the cause of death at the funeral: overdose

Posted by Guest Author on

By David Highfield*

Early last month, I officiated at an evening funeral of a 33-year old man, unknown to me, who died of a drug overdose. A phone call came to me from a friend who said the family was seeking a pastor for the funeral. Apparently, four pastors had already said that they were unavailable.

Although I was reluctant at first, I sensed a family in need. After talking with the sister of the deceased, I agreed to participate. In that conversation, I learned that the family was seeking a compassionate, non-judgmental pastor, further confirming my decision to serve.

I asked the family for permission to name the cause of death (not a part of the newspaper obituary) as a part of the funeral and they agreed. Said his sister, “We need to shed some light on this.”

Aware of the drug overdose epidemic throughout Maryland, I also contacted Assess Carroll of Carroll County, an integrated health care clinic that serves uninsured, underinsured, and poor residents of the county. I was aware that recently Access Carroll ( had expanded their “Ambulatory Detox Services” to seven days a week. I was strongly led to include information about this program as a part of my message at the funeral, believing that addiction is a community and family disease.

I called Kim, the lead nurse for the detox program, who supplied me with leaflets about the program. When I arrived at the funeral home, the director willingly received the leaflets and placed them visibly at each exit just before the funeral service began.

My message was preceded by scripture and prayers from the United Methodist Book of Worship and by a helpful reflection on her brother’s life by his sister. But I knew that more than “verbal thoughts and prayers” would be needed to help stop this overdose epidemic. I spoke of the daily Detox Services available in our community through Access Carroll and encouraged those present to pick up a leaflet for themselves or for someone they knew who was struggling with opiate or alcohol addiction.

In my years of ministry, this was a first for me — suggesting a specific healing program as well as addressing the grief, pain and guilt, and offering words of grace, forgiveness and hope.

I may never know whether anyone took a leaflet (I left them at the funeral home) or whether anyone was helped by this part of my message. I’m sure my ministry to the family and friends was imperfect. But thankfully, this was not about me. I do believe that healing from the disease of alcohol or drug addiction needs to include the power of God through Jesus Christ.

Hopefully, that power and its availability touched someone that evening.

*Rev. David Highfield is a retired Elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference living in Westminster.