It seems like it happens more all the time: someone dies and their family and friends choose not to have any kind of a funeral or even a memorial. Sometimes, the newly heartbroken speak of having a service “at a later date,” but all too often that service never happens. Sometimes, they do nothing because they don’t know what to do and they are afraid to call a pastor with whom they have not had previous contact.
And sometimes, they do nothing, while passionately, saying: “He did not want ANYTHING.” It makes me wonder how life can be lived so intentionally, only to be ended as if it was merely an accident, requiring no public recognition of the life or the loss.
Maybe, people choose to do nothing because it feels like being faithful to the one who has died.
Except that, ironically, the one thing every survivor has immediately following a loss, is…nothing. The word most often used to describe the hours, days, weeks, after a loved one dies is: empty. There is an empty chair where a person use to sit; a watch that has no wrist. And for those living in that space of loss, doing nothing–does nothing–to fill the empty place.
Doing “something” of course will not fill the space with the one thing we want most: the return of the person who has died. And yet, doing something — having a funeral or memorial service — DOES fill the gap between our life with them, and our future, without.
I am in my 13th year as a pastor. I have officiated at roughly 150 funerals, and attended an equal amount. One thing I have learned through all this loss is this: people need to give honor to a loved one after they die and giving honor is more easily done with others around. A service gathers the others, so that together, the empty space created by death can begin to be filled with life.
A funeral or memorial service is, among other things, a place to share the stories, to hand the kleenex, to wrestle together with what happens next. When faced with an obsessive need to do something, when there is a funeral, we can bake the ham, make the calls, write the obituary. Giving honor is more tangible when others are with you to remember, to commit, to eat, to pray, to light a candle.
To sit in the pew next to you in holy silence.
Those in the business of caring for the brokenhearted know that ritual is important in helping us heal. There is a reason you hear the 23rd Psalm or Amazing Grace or Jesus’ words about going to prepare a place for us — at almost every funeral. Ritual and familiar prayers and bible passages and hymns are comforting, even when we are numbed by grief. Even when faith falters. Even, maybe especially, when we cry out in the midnight hour, alone on the floor of the living room, “where ARE you?”
When there is a fire, you call the fire department. When you are sick, you call the doctor. I wonder then why, when someone dies, people increasingly are reluctant to call a pastor to bind the wounds of their broken spirit, when this is what we do. At a time when often no one seems to know what to do, we do.
I know that everyone has at least one story of a funeral they attended at which the pastor messed up the name of the one being buried, or preached hellfire and brimstone, or otherwise was not helpful. And yet, I cannot think of one funeral I’ve attended or led, after which the brokenhearted said, “I wish we had done nothing.”
Without exception, what people do say after a funeral is: thank you. What they do say is that they are more at peace because the one who has died had a good “send-off.” What they do say, whether they attend church regularly or not, is “that was … holy.”
News of death is the one thing in life that sends every single one of us to our knees. Our knees buckle, we collapse, and from there we cry or curse or crawl when we are finally able to move.
But we also can choose to go there to pray. And when that happens, it seems like death can become a doorway that opens to a long hall. It is that hall that leads the survivors back to life even when they feel like their life is over.
Today is All Saints Sunday. It is a day in the church when we light candles and read the names of members who have died in the past year. We also read the names of babies who were baptized because when it comes to Saints, we never age out and there is no minimum age.
At all our services today, we will do these very things. But at our 6:00 p.m. service at Melbourne Beach, we will also remember those in our lives for whom there was no memorial or funeral this past year. We will remember those who did have a funeral, but for whatever reason, we were unable to attend. We will collectively remember the ones who said, “I don’t want ANYTHING” and we will do it together because we, the people who miss their presence here, need to fill the space they left behind with SOMETHING.
For all its faults, the church knows the something that is helpful and healing when we are faced with an empty space. We learned it after death locked our hope away in a tomb. We learned it when the stone sealing the tomb was rolled away. We learned it when the witnesses looked inside and found it was empty. And we learned it from the story that was told by those who gathered to grieve and found the emptiness of death filled with the hope of life.
“And that life was the light of all people.” — John 1:4