(This is my regular column, “Bridgework” for August, 2015 in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine)
In the name of death
In my first year as pastor in my present assignment, our parish community celebrated fifty funerals. I remember one funeral where only four people were present and yet the power of our ritual spoke so beautifully even among the empty pews. At another funeral, the sister of the deceased came to the parish carrying the cremated remains of her brother in a cardboard box. I slid my key along the masking tape of the box thinking that there was a container inside holding the ashes. I pried open the cardboard box and discovered the ashes were contained in a clear plastic bag.
At one rather large funeral, a son told the story of his father’s hands tucking him in bed as a child. As an adult, the son held his father’s hand while he was on his deathbed. The years in between the son’s childhood and the father’s death were cold and distant. The unnamed emotions between the child and the father seemed to hover over the congregation that day.
I also celebrated a funeral of a man who shot himself in his home. For many decades he faced the emotional patterns of highs and lows. He tried desperately to hide this pattern from the public. However, the emotional tide of depression overcame him and finally took his life.
People jammed into the church to honor him. Nearly another two hundred people waited outside. I tried my best to name the issues, the darkness he faced and our hope in Christ Jesus for all of us who remain. I kept coming back to the phrase in my own mind that there is no depression in the face of Jesus. The depression was not his fault. The suicide was not his fault. We cannot blame anyone who has a disease that sweeps us off the earth. Staring now into the face of Jesus, there is no depression for this man who left behind his mother, wife and children.
These human stories help form our faith. Each of these funeral liturgies teaches me that this grand mystery of death cannot be denied. Death is real and we must celebrate each person’s death with honesty and integrity. We must have the courage to tell the truth at funerals and share the honest stories at wake services. Death is not hidden among the flower arrangements nor can we pretend it does not exist by ignoring the details of the story so not to embarrass the living.
As so many families drift away from the rituals of the Church, the name “death” is also getting a facelift. People prefer to ignore the name of death altogether. “A celebration of life” has replaced the funeral. Funeral homes have removed the name, “chapel” from their signage. These interior spaces are just called “gathering” rooms. So many families just do not want anything that names the reality of death or the traditional rituals that surround the end of life.
The Solemnity of All Saints and The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed or All Souls becomes an opportunity to help form our parish communities to face death. As Christians, we believe that death leads us to the face of God. We are called to acknowledge the truth of death because it leads to our eternal home. Those who believed in God on earth now teach us how to live in our passing world in faith and even joy. Our saints of the past are key to helping people in our communities tell the truth about death. These liturgies help us all believe that our loved ones are still in communion with us even in eternal life.
As parish leaders and liturgists, we are challenged to bring the reality of death back into the experience of our worshipping communities. We can welcome our parishioners to parish funerals, using our Facebook page, websites or other forms of social media and invite families to pray for the deceased during family dinners and other times of prayer. We are called to welcome families of the deceased even if they do not belong to the parish. We need to break down the notion that funerals are private events in our churches.
Isolating the community from our celebrations of death is never healthy for our children and families. Celebrating a funeral is an opportunity to involve our children in creating notes or cards of sympathy for bereaved families. Prayer becomes the opportunity for each member of the parish to connect with the reality of death. If we do not bring our communities into the reality of death, our denial becomes more devastating to families and communities than death itself.
The beauty of all fifty funerals we celebrated in my first year at the parish is that each human story of death teaches me how to live. I surrender each day to the reality of life instead of focusing on how I think life should be. Death helps me believe that grace guides each human life here on earth and I am filled with gratitude. The real name of death lives in our lives as believers in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.