Lisa’s funeral was three years, almost to the day, from when she was first diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer on March 17, 2020. She was my friend through seminary, my colleague since we graduated in 2003, a woman I admired, respected, loved. From the day she was diagnosed, she wrote on her Caring Bridge online journal, almost daily. Throughout the pandemic, throughout her chemo and the horrible discomfort and scream-worthy pain she endured, throughout her four children and husband’s efforts to be present, helpful, and truthful despite the ordeal she was living through, Lisa wrote. She told us the ugly truth of her experience and the beautiful hope and moments of joy that accompanied her on her journey. Hundreds of people, including myself regularly read her updates, even as we prayed, sent gifts, wrote letters, and signed up to send dinner to this beloved family.
Until the day when I logged on and the journal entry began, “This is Lisa’s husband writing…”
Lisa’s funeral was two states and 221 miles away. It was the farthest I had driven alone since the pandemic. It was my first time entering a church since I left the church I was serving a month before, which had me grieving a different kind of loss.
I carried to that funeral guilt for not seeing Lisa in person before now. I carried a commitment to make the drive and show up for her and her family despite my desire to not go. I carried the dread—possibly the one item everyone who has ever attended a funeral packs for the occasion.
St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church was packed. Easily a thousand people or more attended; many stood for the entire two hour service. Together, we heard remembrances from five people, beginning with her mother. Every eulogy was well-crafted. The words these people who loved Lisa spoke helped us remember, and understand more deeply, the details of who she was. The words made us laugh. They made us cry. They made us hold the person speaking up with our unspoken but palpable support, when they faltered, or needed water, or needed…a minute…before they continued.
I have been a pastor for twenty years. I have served four churches, in three different states. I also worked for a funeral home in Columbus, Ohio as their on-call pastor for those who wanted clergy, but did not have a church they called home. I have officiated at close to 250 funerals.
I’m certain that the church, in its current form, is dying, or at least being reformed. I believe this is a good thing.
Still, if the church continues to decline, I hope that the one thing we will keep from the rites, rituals, and practices of the church will be – funerals. I think holding space for a funeral is one of the most holy gifts the church still gives to this hurting world. And this is true whether a funeral is in a church, or in a garden. The rites and rituals in a funeral were written specifically for their power to help those who mourn process their grief and refocus on a sense of hope or at least, the hope that can be found in community.
Funerals were becoming less common before the pandemic. The pandemic only accelerated this new normal in which funerals are optional. I’m sure you’ve heard, or even spoken yourself, the argument against a funeral, or against the tradition in which those still living plan the funeral. They sound something like this:
“I don’t want a damn funeral. Just throw a party. Go to a pub. Toss my ashes in a lake (the ocean, the mountains, on a ski slope, at the cabin).
“If you have a funeral, I swear I’ll haunt you. I don’t want everyone sitting around being sad because of me.”
This one, is also popular:
“I’ve already paid for everything and set everything up. The flowers, the hymns, even what I want to wear.”
These positions do something that I doubt the one who emphatically says them understands:
By saying you don’t want a funeral, or, by planning everything that will happen when you die to the last detail, you are depriving the people you love from the healing that is gained by having a funeral.
In lieu of a funeral, I have heard people say, “we’ll have a celebration of life…later.” That celebration may or may not actually happen. But the “later” part dismisses the way having a funeral relatively close to the death is ironically the most helpful thing for those who are plunged into grief when their loved one dies. Even as they dread it. Funerals and memorial services facilitate healing in ways that nothing else can.
A funeral (with a body) or a memorial service (with an urn):
- Enables the friends and family of the one who has died to see, in a memorable way, that they are not alone in their grief. Perhaps you’ve had the experience, when you are the bereaved, when an old friend shows up, having come a long way to be with you. Years later, one of the things you remember is when they walked in the door at the visitation, and you first saw them. If so, then you know the sense of being loved in that moment, that is unique to the experience of death.
- Allows all those who grieve the loss of this person to get to know them in a fuller way. The stories, the eulogy, the photos, the music all paint a picture of the one for whom you grieve that may include new information about them. In this way, it is as if their life continues giving to those they loved even on this occasion.
- Acknowledges that this person did indeed, live. This does not happen when there is no funeral or memorial service. The immediate family are left with this gigantic hole in their hearts, in the daily routines, in the way they do things that use to be easy. And as time goes on, their grief is compounded by a sense that everyone has forgotten this person who they couldn’t forget, even if they tried.
- Gives jobs to all those who are grieving (when the person who died has not planned their funeral down to the last detail). When a loved one dies, there is a strong sense that we must do something. Making phone calls, food for the family, food for the meal after the funeral; choosing music or poetry; writing an obituary, a eulogy, or a prayer are all actions that help the bereaved process their loss. When there is no need for these actions, the grief tends to linger even longer than it would otherwise because there was no mechanism to work through it in the safety of a caring community.
- Gives even those who live far away a prompt to respond to the loss. They send flowers, or contribute to the designated charity. They write notes of sympathy, or send food. Sometimes, they get on a plane, a train, in a car, and sojourn to be present when this person who was part of their life is laid to rest.
- Allows the one who has died to leave one last legacy in the form of inviting the grieving to make a contribution to a charity that mattered in the life of the dead.
- Enables people to think creatively about what gift they might offer to the moment: musical gifts; hospitality; organization.
- Officially marks the end of a life and the beginning of life without that person here, on earth, in the way that we are accustomed to having them. And while this might seem like it would happen with or without a funeral, in my experience, a funeral helps mark this transition in a way that supports and helps the bereaved because they are surrounded by loving community when it happens. Grief is hard enough to bear. To bear it alone, from the moment of loss, multiplies the pain of loss.
After Lisa’s funeral, I drove as far as Columbus, where I stayed with my son and daughter-in-law for a night. They did not know Lisa, but they knew I had attended a funeral for a friend. When I got to their place, they spoke gently. They listened as I told the story of what I had just witnessed and experienced. They made comfort food and gave me time to sit in quiet. I would not have been a recipient of those gifts of care if I had not gone to Lisa’s funeral.
Even though the pandemic goes on, we are now able to gather to celebrate life passages and rejoice in the presence of those we love. I hope that our gatherings will also include funerals or memorial services, and that they happen shortly after death and include the rituals of making food, choosing music, writing remembrances and most of all, people gathering to mark a life they were blessed to have intersect with their own. I hope we mark their life, by commending that life, at last, into the loving arms of the one who calls them home. And just as we would rarely leave a gathering without saying goodbye to the hosts, to those whose presence we enjoyed, we also need to say goodbye to those we have known and loved, whenever one of us, leaves to go home, at last.
beautiful message . timely for me as my wife Marie passed on on Jan, 14 this year . we had a small memorial service but it was beautiful and I’ll never forget it . I’m still grieving and probably will be for a while , but I can’t go around it . Ihave to go through it . thanks !
I’m so sorry about Marie, Larry. I’m glad to hear you’re taking it on directly. It’s the best way, almost always. Perpetual light shine on your beloved wife.
thanks for the encouragement . even though we weren’t with you very long ,marie and i were so proud that you were our pastor .
We always enjoy your posts. Your message is always something we need to think about! We are sending good thoughts and prayers for you as you continue
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