For The Someday Book

Accompanying the Dead

Posted on: May 5, 2014

Last week, a beloved member of my congregation died. He was a prominent businessman and philanthropist in the community, so his death prompted a front-page article in the community newspaper. The reporter called me, and I offered a few words of appreciation. The article that followed was lovely, but it referred to me as his “former pastor.” I suspect the reporter intended to indicate that since the man was “former,” then our relationship was “former” as well. I probably used the past tense in describing him, my regular practice to adjust to the reality of death. However, we were just entering into one of the deepest and most holy parts of the pastoral relationship.

Funeral (1)

It only looks like this in movies, never in real life.

As your pastor, I accompany you when you die. Unless your death is sudden, I will come and sit with you and invite you to talk about dying. What frightens you? What gives you peace, and what peace do you need to make? What have you left undone, unspoken, unacknowledged? Can I help you tend to those things, or let them go?  Together in prayer we will hold the grief and gratitude for your life, the fears you face and the confessions you make.

As you approach your last breath or immediately after it, your family will call me. I will come and sit with them and with your body. I might put a touch of scented oil on your forehead to bless your body one last time. We will touch you as you grow colder,  pray that God will deliver you to peace and that we might have strength to confront our grief at your absence. I will share with them, gently and without violating your confidence, what you told me about your own death. It helps your family to learn that we talked about these things.

After they meet with the funeral director to tend to the details, I will gather with your spouse or children or grandchildren or closest friends. They are exhausted from the things of death—caskets and cemeteries, death certificates and disposal of property, phone calls and insurance. Often we sit around your kitchen table, or in your living room. I think about times I visited with you during your life, and I ask them to do the same.  As the stories flow, it’s like you are there with us. We smile and laugh, and we all cry together, too. I take notes. They tell me secrets you probably wish they didn’t, and I promise not to repeat them. Sometimes, if I knew you well, I get to reveal stories about you, too. Together we put aside the things of death to pick up the things of life again–your sense of humor, your pet peeves, your passions, your work, your love. If you were not always a nice person, we talk about that too. Honesty is important.

We talk about how to place your life in the context of God’s wider story of love. How was God revealed in your life? What faith did you practice? We read scriptures and listen to music together until we find just the right verses to connect your spirit to God’s Spirit. Before I go, I pray with your family, and we call your name, giving thanks to God for you.

Over the next few days or hours, I think about you all the time—washing dishes, praying, driving around town, listening to music, looking in the bathroom mirror. I almost always dream about you, and sometimes I think you speak to me in dreams. I read through the notes and scriptures again, and contemplate how to talk about your life and God’s place in it. When you are alive, you are dynamic, changing, conflicted, plural. Suddenly, the story is closed, the ending known.  I take a scattered mix of memories and images and senses and feelings and string them together to make sense of your unique, complex self—and of the presence of God. I pray that I can give your family back the words they shared with me, to replace the things of death with the things of life again.

At the funeral, my body accompanies yours from beginning to end. I enter with you, leading the casket into the chapel or sanctuary. When the service concludes, I stand a few feet from you while everyone pauses to say their last good-byes. I try to stand slightly apart, so that people don’t feel like they need to shake my hand. I don’t eavesdrop on their private farewells, but I see them touch your hand, call your pet name, kiss you on the cheek. I always fight tears.

When everyone else has left, I stay. I pray with your body one last time, just the two of us, before watching the funeral director close your casket for the last time. I walk with you to the hearse, stand by while the pallbearers lift you inside, then climb in the front seat to ride with you to the cemetery. When we arrive, I lead you and the pallbearers to the graveside, offering final words and prayers before you are laid to rest. The family often comes forward to touch the casket, to take a rose, to say one more goodbye. They drive away, but I stay behind with the funeral director. I watch until you are lowered into the ground. Only then do I leave your side. Only then might I be considered your “former” pastor.

But the truth is that I will always carry you with me. The threshold between life and death is a thin place, and when we have stood there together, we are forever linked. The holiness of accompanying you through the rites of death leaves a mark on my soul, even if I never met you in life. I may speak in the past tense and say, “I was your pastor,” but as I accompanied you in death, you accompany me in life. I remember you on All Saints Day, on the next visit to the same funeral home, hospital room, cemetery. I remember you when I hear that hymn or read that scripture or drive by your old house. And I still think of myself as your pastor.

22 Responses to "Accompanying the Dead"

This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.

Thank you for this beautiful post and your walking with the dead as you have described which really is a holy experience. Your congregation is fortunate to have you and your guidance especially during such a difficult time as when a loved one dies.
I don’t recall how I happened on to your post but keep coming back because of your book reviews which are written so well and thought provoking. Thank-you and warm regards.

It was a privilege to read this exquisite essay!

You described it so well. Thank you. As a pastor, now retired, I have walked that walk, from beginning to end, with so many people. I just hadn’t drawn the map so articulately. It’s a good map. May many pastors follow it.

Thanks so much for sharing this. I remember well walking this journey. It’s one of the privileges I miss the most in retirement from active ministry. In our tradition when a child is too young to do anything for God – before talking or walking or knowing God, people who love that child carry him or her into church for baptism – to thank God for them and for giving them life. And I love equally how at death – when that person can no longer speak or walk – that people who love them once more carry them into church to thank God for them. It’s a privilege to be there at the beginning and at the end – when we thank God for ushering that person leaving us into a new and exciting adventure – which includes cheering the rest of us on in our journey. I wouldn’t have wanted any other kind of work!

Thank you for this beautiful juxtaposition of “carrying” at the beginning and end of life!

A deeply moving reflection. Thank you.

*Tears* I didn’t know pastors like you existed anymore. Can I clone you? I have a degenerative disease & I often think about this day you describe. You’ve inspired me to continue to build relationships in my new church, esp. with my new pastor. THANK YOU for being so compassionate, loving, & tender to the sick, dying, & passed members of your congregation – before, during & after death!

I don’t know that I have ever seen the difficult privilege of pastors expressed so very well. Thank you

I want to read your someday book. This is beautiful.

What a beautiful and amazing post. Thank you. I’m an incoming seminarian and planning to do my CPE in hospice because I know that’s a growing edge for me. This post gives me something to strive for, something to work towards in my own ministry. Again, thank you.

How I appreciate the pastor who presided over both of my parents funerals. How much more I appreciate how they had a fellowship in life. In loss, it is good to share the joys and the sorrows. Thank you.

Ah, thank you so much for this wonderful essay.

Blessed are the pastors and chaplains who recognize the gifts they’re given when invited to share these sacred journeys. Blessed are we who read your exquisite description. Thank you.

Clearly what we find here are the words of yet another self righteous politically correct starbucks wielding yuppy gospel preacher locked in a petty battle of verbiage quiveling and speculation. There is little “theologically ” or doctrinally sound argumentation demonstrated in the above. Ergo, what is truth?

Here’s hoping this is a bit of misplaced “tongue in cheek” satire.

This was beautiful. Thanks for sharing it. You would probably like this book of poetry that deals with themes of death and life.

Dave Keel

Who is the author of this amazing essay.

Thank you!

How fortunate your congregation is to have you as a pastor. I am sorry to say that not all pastors give of themselves so much and the church member and family do not receive much comfort from them. If only all pastors realized what a privilege it is to minister to others and that, perhaps, it is more important than being at every committee meeting or church breakfast.

[…] We get to be with people in the best and worst times of their lives.  We celebrate births, officiate weddings, and walk people through the difficulties of death.  In fact, a friend of mine has written an incredible reflection on the pastor’s role in a funeral here. […]

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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