Yesterday, I was looking over the annual report for my congregation for 2011. I was surprised to see that only five of our members died during the year. It was surprise to me, because I had done more than twice that many funeral in 2011. Now that I’ve been here in the community for nine years, several of the local funeral directors have taken to calling me for funerals for folks who have no local church relationship or no church relationship at all. Sometimes the funerals come in quick succession. During one four days period a few years ago, it was my task to commend the souls of two of my fellow human beings on to God and commit their bodies to the ground. One was eighty-five years old, the other seventeen. The circumstances of their lives were very different, as were the circumstances of their deaths. The consequences of their deaths will also likely be quite different.
The eighty-five year old, I knew. I’d conversed with while she was still able to do that. I’d held her hand, prayed with her, looked
at her family photographs. I had expected to be doing her funeral before too much longer. In fact, I had been forewarned a few days earlier that the end of her life was quite near, and so it proved to be.
I saw her two days before she died. She was deeply asleep at the time, and I didn’t try to wake her. She had been for the past few years all but deaf. So, I knew that, if I was to try to wake her, I’d have to shake her awake. That just seemed like the wrong thing to do. Instead, I just laid my hand on her head and prayed for God’s nearness and peace. I asked God to ease her passing whenever he deemed the time right. I believe he did just that.
Her funeral was small and simple. I try never to take such events lightly. Each is enormously important in its own way. And each such funeral will be, in certain respects, as unique as is each life that is remembered and celebrated in them.
I have not kept a running tally of the funerals that I’ve presided over during the past twenty-three years. But a rough estimate of something like 250 seems about right. (In 2011, for example, I oversaw twelve funerals). I no longer find it to be especially taxing to prepare and preside over the funeral of someone who has reached the natural and normal end of a full life. I often feel sadness and a sense of loss, especially if I knew the person well. But it is rarely challenging or taxing for me to prepare and preside over a meaningful and appropriate funeral service in such cases. (It is always more meaningful and appropriate if you yourself talk with me about what you want your funeral to be like. I keep those advanced plans in my files until they are needed. Think about it. Give me a call.)
The funeral service for the seventeen year old was an entirely different case. That task was emotionally wrenching and fraught with uncertainties and anxieties. The age and circumstances of this death made it so. He had taken his own life in the basement of his stepfather’s house. This was a death that touched an enormous number of young people, their parents, and a wide array of the community’s adults.
What did it all mean? How can one make sense of such senseless and unnecessary tragedy? How can we cope with the writhing emotions pressing, pushing, competing in the bowels of anyone who was even brushed by this terrible thing?
I made some faltering, imperfect efforts. But in the end, I realized that in the face of such evil as the untimely and entirely unnecessary death of a healthy, potential-filled seventeen year old human being, the answers, such as they are and there are some, are not sufficient. Healing, redemption, and hope are not ultimately founded on good logic alone.
Healing, hope, and redemption are in the end the work of love – God’s love, which is a robust, muscular, emphatic, and gentle love.
What I saw, as I looked out on that sea of broken faces during that wrenching funeral, was a desperate, frightened, aching need for an assurance of love – not a syrupy, pale, limp sort of love. Whether they understood it or not, what they longed for was the powerful, world-making love that spoke the universe into existence, the surging, unrestrainable love that burst out of the tomb on Easter morning, the persevering, pursuing love that simply refused to allow us to escape, the conquering, completing love that declares, “Behold, I have made all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) Where will they ever see the reality of that kind of love? They won’t ever see it, unless they see it in us.
[The Five Wishes program is a wonderful tool for helping a people talk about and plan for care at the end of life. End of life planning is something that many people avoid, but in so doing they make things much harder for their family. I want to encourage you to check out the Five Wishes website and consider using it to help you and your family prepare for the end of life.]