By a rough count with a fading memory, I attended at least twenty wakes and funerals by the time I turned twelve. It was not until much later that I realized that many of my contemporaries did not share my experience. For them, waiting in lines at wakes was not a sought-after activity.
I went mostly because my parents went. They went because their elders went. They did not go because others forced them into it but because it was simply “What we do.” This is how we show up for one another. How we honor relationships. This is how we get through the pain and help others get through theirs.
The list of those mourned eventually grew to include those close to me – my “Uncle Leo” (not my uncle but my mother’s second cousin’s husband) to whom I grew exceptionally close. Not long after was my “busza” – my great grandmother – the last of her generation. Then there was my own godfather “Corky” who died prematurely by today’s standards from of a type of heart disease that we soon discovered ran in my dad’s family. And just a year later, my Aunt Ginka (her name was really Genevieve), Corky’s sister. Again, neither were really uncle or aunt but were my dad’s first cousins with whom he grew up under the care of their father, my great-uncle Martin (whose funeral was one of the first I remember). Through all this I became intimately familiar with the layout of the two funeral homes used by both branches of my family.
For many people these days, attendance at funerals has become fraught and, sometimes, impossible when the pandemic limited the number of mourners allowed to gather (if at all). Some memorial services were put on hold and yet remain uncelebrated. As the celebrations became less possible, we began to realize how much they really matter.
Ritual is what humans do to help each other navigate the ambiguities of our uncertain lives. For Episcopalians, the Rite of Christian Burial helps point us to the promise of eternal life. It uses the sad occasion of the death of someone we love to remind us that in Christ, there is always the promised vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. The services act as a counterpoint to the grief we feel. It doesn’t take it away, but provides a hopeful, forward-looking ritual.
Our tendency sometimes is not to walk through the grief at all, but to avoid it at all costs. The funeral rites in Book of Common Prayer stand in marked contrast to an increasingly popular to hold a “celebration of life.” What this developing custom fails to acknowledge is that it is backward-looking – entirely focused on the past. Remembering is good, but because we still live in the world, we must be able eventually to move into our own future.
We live in a culture that does not want to consider, even briefly, termination, with an end that is “full-stop.” Our culture seeks to deny the limits of our physical nature and existence and the limits of time. Perhaps that is why we crave 24/7 availability, open stores on days usually reserved for family celebrations (like Thanksgiving) and keep people working late on Christmas Eve. It urges us to alter our bodies surgically rather than allow them to show signs of age. In a culture of limitless consumption, it becomes easier to ignore the fact that our time on this earth is limited.
When my father spoke with me about his own obituary, he made it clear that he didn’t want to “pass on” or be “called home” or “join the angels.” He wanted a simple statement telling people that he died. Perhaps his comfort with this idea was because of his constant exposure to it as a younger man. This experience left him, and me, with the understanding that while sad, and sometimes tragic, death is inevitable – that it is a part of life.
It is probably true that no one wants to be at a funeral. It means that in that place there are people whose hearts have broken. Too often, we feel pressured to “say the right thing,” trying to make things better – which seldom happens. What is a bit easier (though uncomfortable) is simply showing up – being there – without words but with hearts wide open with empathy and love. Our presence makes a difference because there is kinship in knowing that we are not alone in our suffering.
This work is part of our mission. To heal the brokenhearted – or at least to open ourselves to the possibility that God can use us to work God’s healing. During this month of remembering and giving thanks, let us think about how we, individually and as a parish family can become part of this great and necessary work.
Source: Rector’s Blog