I attended a funeral this week. I like funerals. Not the saying goodbye part. Or the sorrow, separation, or grief.
But how, listening to people reminisce about the deceased, particularly around the edges, what’s remembered ricochets from the profound and poignant to mundane, quotidian details and back again.
I like how beautiful music speaks more helpfully than too many words. People laugh that, though I’m not wanting to die soon and mine cannot be said to be a musical life, my funeral’s already planned and mostly songs. Bernstein’s Simple Song. Copeland’s The Promise of Living. Ellington’s Come Sunday. The spiritual, I Will Wear a Crown. The hymn, The King of Love My Shepherd Is… More singing; less talking.
But I do love the few spare words of faith we invoke, use over and over again, almost because they’re never quite adequate. Nothing finally cracks the mysteries of life and death. Except, perhaps, “thanks for the time together.” And yet, “there is a time for everything under heaven… a time for life and a time for death” helps, provides me reassurance and comfort.
Finally, what I like about funerals is the perspective they provide for my own life. There will come a day when, hopefully, some huddle of people will gather because I have died. Of course for those I leave behind, I pray that the circumstances of my death won’t be too sad. Ok, I’ll admit to hoping someone at that time will be feeling “missing me enough” to shed a tear or two, but still I don’t want my funeral to be too sad.
I’ve had a life blessed with more than I deserve. It may sound funny, but since I’ve completed raising my kids, these years already feel “extra” and “bonus.” And I believe life is precious in part because it’s a limited time offer. May the folks gathered for my funeral recognize my life was long and fulfilling enough, so they might give thanks for what I was given.
The woman whose funeral I attended this week, she asked for balloons at her funeral. Her husband is very allergic, and flowers would have added to his misery. But I like the image of balloons, of a celebration, a party.
Church understands funerals in and of themselves as nothing horrible. Only extraordinary in as much as we each only have one. Otherwise, it’s really just one more service for worshiping God, albeit on the occasion of giving thanks for a life. Some reassurance how precious each of us is in God’s sight. Even the one who has died is still as dear to God as ever. But in our grief it’s easy to doubt this promise.
Yes, our faith promises that going forward from death, we still have God’s unending love. But in terms of life, all any of us have left at that moment is what we have done with our lives. A few giants– Martin, Mahatma, Mother Theresa– have affected so many, accomplished so much with their lives– that there seems to be no question. But, for the rest of us, our contributions are more scaled. And, sometimes, our failings loom large.
I pray, each of us has someone whose life we know we’ve touched, for whom we’ve made a difference. When our time comes, may each of us find comfort, rest assured in how we dedicated our lives, spent our time, that as we leave this world, whatever we accomplished will seem, at least to ourselves– and by grace, to God too– to have been worthwhile.
Most of what we understand as integral to who we are… count as “our own” during our lifetimes is “graduated beyond” at death. It no longer matters how we looked. The health conditions we struggled with– our weight, blood pressure or sugar… The possessions we accumulated… Even our smarts and what we had experienced or learned… All those might be remembered, even appreciated. But in a casket, Einstein’s no more handsome, healthier, richer, wiser, or loved than the village bum. Thank God, the unresolved problems or conflicts we carried our length of days, often taking up too much of the attention during our time on earth… well, death cuts them down to size too. None of that will matter any more. The only thing left is the affect you had on others.
Mahalia Jackson’s song says,
If I can help somebody, as I travel along.
If I can help somebody, with a word or a song.
If I can help somebody, from doing wrong.
My living shall not be in vain.