Marking death and celebrating life

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kermitI have attended the deaths of several people of late.  At a couple of the deaths my role was to attend the funeral, pray the family through and give God thanks for the friendship I shared with the deceased.  At others I have been more directly involved-giving Last Rites, designing the funeral or providing pastoral care for a loved one.  A young man I do not know died in a tragic way this past week that leaves every mother’s heart chilled and I have been a confidante to a mother for whom the death hit too close to her own home.  At one my role was to make the church I serve available for another faith community to use for their traditional funeral—I know these dear people as we share sacred space each Sunday, but I did not know the one who had died.  Still, I cried as his body was borne from the church.   I am trying to figure out how to be at the funeral of a colleague for whose modeling of faithful and courageous living I am thankful.  At one I held a hand as a last breath was taken.   This coming week I’ll preside at another memorial service.  Here’s what I know:  each and every marking of a “life and witness” is unique, tender and difficult- even for the most faithful of souls.

Some families and communities mark a death with well-honed dignity.  Others do so with much story-telling.  Some have strong “witnessing” as a reflection of the faith of the one who has died- “He would want you to know . . . “.  Some have very little, if any, religious tones.  Some are full of prayer and even praise.  Most all have music.  The one I attended today was full of tears and great mourning.  The one I attended a few weeks ago had no tears, but a steely resolve to “carry on”.  Each of the deceased was much loved and that came across loud and clear at each service.  I have said before, and I’ll say it again:  your funeral, or the marking of your life, will look like, have the same “feel”, as the life you have led.

I joke that my daughters have responsibility to direct my funeral.  I joke, and yet, I am serious too.  They know I am serious—they got this.  In many ways, they really know me best and I trust they will do right by me, however it turns out.  Perhaps it is too much that I ask that Big Bird sing “It isn’t easy being green”, as he did at the funeral of the man who provided the voice of his best friend Kermit (see: Jim Henson funeral at Saint John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, 1990).  But, what my wish lacks in practicality is made up in its emphasis:  interpersonal connection is important to me.  It is NOT too much – IMHO- to ask for a “Second Line” at the end of the service.  “When the saints go marching in” shall be sung strongly and with great enthusiasm.  Something else I know:  as Christians we are called to do two things at once when a loved one dies- we are to mourn their loss and we are to celebrate their changed status, from earthbound to eternity-freed.  Hard to do:  mourn and celebrate at the same time.  But God knows we can do it, even when we don’t think we can.  So cry.  Stand stoic.  Tell lots of stories.  Be very still and circumspect.  Whatever gets you through, whatever helps you process the sacredness of life and living, of connection and companionship.  God will give you the space and the time and the strength.

This coming Sunday, it being the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A, the Gospel reading is about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  There is a lot of weeping:  Lazarus’ sisters weep, his community weeps, even Jesus weeps.  There’s this strange part of the story where Jesus waits a few days before responding to Martha’s call that his friend is very ill.  Even stranger still:  his disciples push back when he says they will go to see Lazarus- they think it too dangerous for him to go.  What if he performs another miracle out in public again?  That could be it for him.  But Jesus pushes on.  And yet, as for the family and community, it appears he is too late.  The mourning has already begun.

As I said, attending to the death of anyone, regardless of the connection or the situation, is a tender affair.  One must go purposefully and with great attention to the matter at hand.  A death is a loss and yet, strangely, it’s a new beginning too.  That’s a lot to process.  How will life continue without this soul physically here?  How shall life move without a parent, spouse, child, friend, colleague or neighbor “here”?  Even the death of foe or someone we always felt “sideways” towards brings questions of how we shall move forward.   The Book of Common Prayer says “even at the grave we make our song “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia”.  So the Christ gives us space and time to process how we need, all the while making way for new life to begin.  Jesus joins the weeping and calls his friend to new life.  Jesus does what Jesus always does:  models faithful living.  He mourns and he celebrates.  He marks the darkness of death and creates ways to live again.

So, when confronted with death, let us do what we must do:  cry, or stand strong, provide a meal or pray a family through, take time out to be still and silent, gather the whole community and tell stories, sing songs loudly, or wear black (or, wear red or orange, or stripes or polka dots . . . ); allow another to do what they need to do, even if it looks and feels very different from how we would “do mourning stuff”.  And then, let us look for the ways the Christ is providing for new living and new beginnings, for ways God has for us to celebrate life and to witness to eternal peace that passes all understanding.

I am honored to get to do what I do.  I get to be an usher at death and life in God’s sacred space.  I get to learn a great deal about both in the process and I like to think it makes me a more complete human being.  Here’s one more thing I know:  as much as I would like to say death is always a serious matter, I know too well that the famous Mary Tyler Moore Show episode where Mary chastises everyone around her as they joke at the death of Chuckles the Clown, only to fall into hysterically funny fits of laughter AT HIS FUNERAL while everyone else is “dignified” is in fact the reality of human foibles (see:, I kid you not, “Chuckles bites the dust” MTM episode, air date 10/25/1975).  We do what we need to do to process death.  And God is with us every step of the way–even when we laugh when we are not supposed to, or get sideways with someone for doing it differently, or don’t understand the whys and the hows and the now whats of it all. God’s good at that.  And often, that’s where some of the most amazing miracles happen.

POSTSCRIPT:  I wrote this blog after hosting the funeral of the member of the faith community that shares our sacred space with us.  The sister of the deceased was inconsolable at the funeral.  The Gathered left for the cemetery.  I came in to my study to write the blog.  I just walked through the fellowship hall to put away some things in the sacristy.  The Gathered had returned from the graveside and were at banquet.  When I walked back through the sister grabs my arm and says in a strong, convicted voice, “Come, you must eat.  You have been here all day taking care of us.  My brother would be made if I did not feed you.  Come, now.  Eat.”  This, my brothers and sisters, is how God works.  This, this is what gives me strength and courage and hope and belief that life begins again and again and again.  May her brother rest in peace and rise in glory and may she continue to glean strength from her God.