This post originally appeared in The View, the weekly parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter and find out more about our parish, click here.
Yesterday, someone at Rotary stopped me to say, “I’m really glad to see you here…because the last two times I’ve seen you have been at funerals.” We both chuckled a little bit at that macabre realization. He was right: I have been to several funerals lately—some as an officiant and others as a member of the congregation. As you might expect, in my line of work, I take part in a good number of funerals. Although our parish only holds ten or so a year, I try to attend the funerals of parishioners’ parents or other loved ones if possible as a way of reminding them that they are loved and prayed for by our whole parish family.
There are as many different ways to say goodbye to someone and give that person into God’s care as there are people on the earth. Each faith tradition, each congregation, and each family all have their own rituals for burying their dead. An ancient practice—perhaps, as the recent archeological discovery of a pre-human graveyard deep within a cave will attest, even more ancient than humanity—we rely on ritual to help us say and do what needs to be said and done in our moment of grief. Ranging from militaristically complex to childishly simplistic, all of our traditions pretty much boil down to two basic truths: we loved the one who has died and we must now let that person go. As you can imagine, however, finding the right balance between saying “I love you” and saying “goodbye” can be difficult.
Frequently, as I help a family prepare for a funeral, most if not all of them belong to another denomination. As a way of reassuring them that we will take good care of their loved one and their whole family, I explain to them that, in my opinion, our church does as good a job of burying the dead as anyone. “We recognize and memorialize the one who has died,” I say, “but we focus primarily on God’s promise of new life both for the person who has died and also for the whole Christian community.” In other words, we spend more time looking forward than looking back. Yes, we remember the life and witness of the one who has died, and, yes, the message of God’s promise of everlasting life is articulated specifically within the context of that person’s life and death, but our funerals have more to do with Jesus than with the person lying in the casket. In my experience, that is the key to stepping away from a moment of grief with seeds of joy and hope that ultimately overcome even our most painful losses.
When Jesus came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, he wept. Despite having power over life and death, the Son of God shed tears of sadness at the grave of one he loved. Why? Because even though he knew that Lazarus would rise again, Jesus was moved with grief at the death of his friend. Similarly, the tears we cry at a funeral are not shed in despair or desperation but in recognition of the earthly loss of one we love. Nevertheless, the overriding sentiment appropriate for a funeral is that of joy. As the explanatory note to our burial liturgy states, the service reflects “the certainty that ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’”
There is a reason why, during the service, we cover the casket with a pall instead of a spray of flowers. There is a reason why no flowers other than those on the altar are present in the church during the funeral. There is a reason why no one other than the clergy will deliver a eulogy (actually a “homily” or “sermon”) as a part of the liturgy. There is a reason why we do not allow an individual to sing a solo at a funeral. The reason is because, in the eyes of God, we are all the same. Essentially, as the old saying goes, our ritual is the same “for a prince or for a pauper.” God’s promise of everlasting life is made to all of us regardless of who we are, how we have lived, or how much we are loved by family and friends. God’s love is bigger than our lives, and God’s love is bigger than our deaths. Therein lies our true hope—our only source of joy in the midst of sadness.
Some people find our burial office particularly impersonal or rigid. I, for one, find comfort in knowing that the liturgy is bigger than any one of us—that its solemn grandeur reflects the not the quality of an individual’s life but the magnitude of God’s promise to defeat even death itself. In our moment of deepest need, when we bid farewell to one we love and deliver that person into God’s loving arms, what more could be said?