November in particular exposes memories of the dead. The liturgy celebrates what so many people experience out of doors as seasons change, that life itself gives way to death. The celebration of All Saints and All Souls opens a flood of recollections of the dead. As days get shorter our memories become more intense. The holidays become tender experiences for so many people unable to face the death of loved ones. Love is an incredible bond but so are guilt, regret and shame.
I realized this tension among people who straddle love and regret in the passing of a loved-one some years ago. Members of a family entered my office to prepare a memorial service for a relative. I noticed immediately hardened tension among the living. Each person told me that he or she was closer to the unmarried deceased man than the other relatives. The niece of the gentleman claimed to know him the best. The son raged against her claiming his spot among his father’s affection. The unnamed issues continued to do battle in the confines of my office space.
As the day for the funeral arrived, I felt the tension at peak level. However, what caught my attention before the funeral were the arrangements of funeral flowers that had been delivered to the church. A large colored ribbon flowed out of each traditional display of autumn chrysanthemums and long gladiolas. A word appeared on each ribbon describing the relationship between the person who purchased the flowers and the deceased, -“father”, “uncle” and “cousin”. Each name on the ribbon was written in glue and colored in glitter. The arguments over who was the most important heir continued over which floral design was most expensive and which ribbon carried the largest glittered name.
As I reflect on the gospels for the closing weeks of the liturgical year, I examine the priorities Jesus wants to instill within our discipleship. Jesus insists that the light of the Kingdom will shine brighter among the peacemakers, the poor in spirit and people who mourn humbly in the face of death. My experience teaches me that we need to give people the tools to mourn their losses and grieve prayerfully throughout life. The battles that were exposed during this family’s funeral tell me that we all struggle with our finite existence on earth. So many people are reluctant to believe they have a place in heaven and that relationships on earth can ever be healed, loved and forgiven.
Jesus reminds us that we need to be wise in our preparations for the Bridegroom. My ministry teaches me that we have lost sight of our basic belief that death gives way to life. Many families no longer celebrate funerals. Instead, “Celebration of life” parties have taken the place of the funeral liturgy. A local funeral home has been in business for 160 years. The owner recently remodeled the former chapel to act as a party room instead. Video screens, a grand piano and banquet tables have replaced the pulpit, pipe organ and pews. So many people coming to the funeral do not want any physical evidence of religion, ceremony or ritual. Party planners are replacing funeral directors. The wisdom of God’s invitation is replaced with our human control over how death will be celebrated on earth.
Jesus also tells us that in the end only a few things will be required of us. The kingdom will be offered to those who simply feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit the prisoner and clothe the naked. As believers we will find our true light when we offer service to one another. The person on earth with least influence is our key to heaven. This is the hidden grace of our faith. The Kingdom is open for us who are willing to sit with the dying who make us uncomfortable. The Promised Land is prepared for us who see Christ amid hardship, loneliness, imprisonment and hunger. Christ’s words are clear and challenging, yet our fear of death and our guilt over how we live remain so unyielding. We do not serve people in order to inherit their earthly goods after they die. We serve people in order to discover our true home in heaven and real love now on this earth.
I remember cleaning up glitter for weeks after that funeral. Celebrating each Mass during that time period I saw a speckle or two of glitter somewhere in the sanctuary. I claimed again the family in prayer at the sight of each sparkle. During the month of November, every parish community is invited into people’s memories of the dead. We all minister among arguments and hurt feelings around death so that we may encourage families that our differences will be sorted out in love.