For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘funerals

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.

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One of the great joys of serving as a pastor is bearing witness to so many intimate moments in people’s lives. When a baby is baptized, I get to stand right up there with the family and even hold the child. When young people give their lives to Christ at Confirmation, I get to place my hands on their heads. When a couple is married, the three of us stand alone atop the chancel as they make their vows. When someone is facing a health crisis, I am invited into intimate conversations about life and death, and I can sit with people in very deep moments of contemplation. When people discover faith for the first time, or when they take a new step in devotion or understanding, they talk to me about it. I am regularly privileged to be at someone’s bedside to pray as they take their last breath. When a loved one dies, I am honored to listen to the stories their family tells about how much this person meant to them, and then to give them back those stories during the funeral service. It is an honor and a privilege to be a pastor in these holy moments.

However, it is also a disconcerting experience at times. These beautiful moments that I participate in on a regular basis are not my moments. It is not my mother or father or spouse who is dying or being buried. Neither I nor any member of my family is being baptized, confirmed or married. For those at the heart of these life-altering days, these are unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. For me, they are just another day at the office. What they are doing once in a lifetime, I may be doing several times that week, or even that day.

I am not being flip. As I said before, these are holy moments, and it is an honor to be present in them. But the reality remains that they are not my moments, I am only a witness. And this can leave me feeling a bit disconnected, not just from those around me, but from my own life.

B makes a drive to the goal, a part of the game I missed

This was brought home to me last Saturday, when B played in his first-ever soccer game. I had a memorial service at nearly the same time, but I managed to make it for part of the game, cheering from the sidelines in my black suit and heels. After a quick hug from a sweaty kid at halftime, I jumped in the car. Twenty minutes later, I was somber-faced, leading a gathering of people saying goodbye to a beloved mother and grandmother. An hour after that, I was handling a phone call from another family in crisis, then heading out to Red Robin for B’s victory dinner (even though his team lost badly) and home to finish the sermon for Sunday.

I was fully present and attentively caring to the grieving family, and I felt genuine love and concern for them and even some small grief for this woman I had come to know. Yet I floated above their level of heartache, distant from their absorbing grief. For them, the moment itself was overwhelming, an emotional experience that knocked out all other concerns. For me, it was not even the most emotional event in my day.

This happens regularly in pastoral life, as we travel alongside people and accompany them through life’s major moments. As witnesses, we are present and compassionate without being fully immersed in the experience. That distance is a sign of a healthy self and functional pastor. Yet, I sometimes think that it keeps me distant from my own life as well. While I was cheering and clapping on the sidelines, I was also distant there, wearing my funeral clothes. I couldn’t give myself over to pride and jubilation, because the 15 minute drive from the game to the funeral home wasn’t going to be enough to change gears so fast.

What does this quick-change pastoral life do to our own emotional depth? Am I a ghost, a hovering specter in other people’s lives, somehow untouched by their hardship?  Am I a chameleon, changing my emotional colors to blend in with my environment? Am I a prop, playing a functional part in other people’s scenes? On some days, I think this distance is an obstacle to diving deep into my own emotional well, because I am always present and subject to the varied emotional states of others.

On other days, I look over the richness of these experiences and understand that they equip me to journey deeper. As a frequent traveler over the terrain of death, of birth, of sickness, of joy, of love, I come to know its contours well, and I can engage my own experience with a richer perspective. Because I have witnessed so many holy moments, I can recognize them more easily in my life. I may have frequent roller-coaster experiences from one extreme to another, but that’s because my pastoral work always keeps me close to the heart of what matters most—which includes both the soccer field and the funeral home.

Yet another tension we hold on to in this pastoral life.

What do you think? Do you ever feel this tension in your personal and pastoral life?

This has been a difficult week for my congregation. We have experienced the death of two beloved church members this week, as well as three unrelated deaths of family members (a mother, a father, a sister) of church leaders within the last two weeks. I have been responsible for officiating at four of the five funerals, including three in five days.

As a pastor, these difficult, exhausting times are just part of the job sometimes. It comes with the pastoral life. The middle of the night phone calls and trips to the hospital, the painful hours spent sitting with grieving families, the processing of lifetimes in writing homilies and prayers—this is the work of ministry. When the crises pile on, we get tired, but we keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the work that God has called us to do.

In my church, I am giving thanks this difficult week that I do not do this work alone. I am beyond exhausted by the sadness and heartbreak of it all, not to mention the scramble to prepare services and interrupted, sleepless nights. I have my own grief to manage as I say goodbye to people I have come to love dearly. But I am not the only one carrying this burden, or doing the work of caring for these families.

I am surrounded by so many faithful Christians who are also participating in the work of ministy to these grieving members of our community. The Women’s Fellowship has coordinated a funeral meal for four of the services. Several were very large families and groups, and they reached out to the rest of the congregation for help. I know that even as I am up late in the night writing another homily and formatting another bulletin, the church family is up late in their kitchens preparing casseroles and vegetable trays and chocolate cakes. When I arrive early to print out programs in my office, they appear just a few minutes later to start preparing the coffee and the lemonade.

During the meal, I watch them make their way to the grieving family members. I see the women who’ve lost husbands in recent years spending time with the newest widow, reassuring her that she will survive this heartbreak. I see caregivers who’ve supported each other in holding on now supporting one another in letting go. When my feet are aching and I just want to go home, I am not there alone—they are packing up the leftovers, washing the dishes, wiping the tables. We arrive together, we leave together. We grieve together, we serve together.

I am so blessed to serve in this community, where we are the church to one another. Each one of us is doing our part. I carry the pastoral load of emergency calls and funeral rites. They carry the load of food and friendship. My hours might be longer on weeks like this one, but I feel their ministry carrying mine when I am about to fall exhausted. I am so grateful.

Most of the time, I ride in the hearse or the lead car with the funeral director for the journey from the funeral to the gravesite. This is always fun, because contrary to their dour image, funeral directors can be quite funny. They are usually willing to regale you with outrageous stories from the death business, if only you are willing to inquire. But the far more important and advantageous reason for riding with the funeral director is that I do not have to drive my car in the funeral procession.

I do not drive a nice car. I have grown up enough to no longer drive a car that is a complete and total embarrassment, better suited to a high-schooler than an educated professional, but I still drive a car that is small, cheap, used and usually unwashed. I drive this car partly by choice and partly by economic necessity. Contrary to popular belief, pastors are not usually wealthy people. I do not choose to use my limited resources on purchasing and maintaining a sweet ride. I am fine with that. I like my car, its reliability, excellent gas mileage and low price tag. I do not have car envy. I do not secretly wish for something bigger and fancier. I feel no shame or embarrassment over my car or its condition.

Except on those rare occasions when I don’t get to ride with the funeral director, and I have to insert my small, cheap, unwashed, well-worn automobile into the funeral procession.

And not just anywhere in the funeral procession. They always want the pastor up front. Usually either directly behind the hearse or between the lead car and the hearse, where my battered little ride sticks out like a pimple on the prom queen.

That means that the whole funeral procession is behind me, fixing its eyes on me and my automobile. Even the grieving family rides behind the pastor. Today, there were three stretch limos involved. So the procession went:  Cadillac, Hearse, me, Limo, Limo, Limo. One small, dirty, four-year-old Kia in a sea of beautiful, shiny, black luxury. I climbed out of my car at the cemetery feeling like I’d just shown up to New York’s Fashion Week wearing something from the clearance rack at Old Navy.

Oil Stain Optional

Would anyone be interested in a clergy car co-op, where we purchase one shiny, new black sedan to take turns driving in funeral processions?

I went to the local funeral parlor today to meet with a family to plan a funeral service. As I was leaving the funeral home, I stopped by the office only to discover Santa Claus standing there. A really good-looking, neat and clean, authentic beard kind of Santa Claus.  A bit bewildered, I smiled and said, “I guess it’s really true that Santa Claus is everywhere!” To which he replied with a jaunty wave and a “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Definitely strange.

As I made my way out the front door, I saw him climb into his Cadillac and drive away, waving to a bus full of schoolchildren driving by.

You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry?


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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