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Friday, October 31, 2014

The Joy of Funerals

Putting the words "joy" and "funeral" in the same sentence may sound a rather odd combination, even for All Hallow's Eve and All Souls and All Saint's Day.

One of our kids says about the work of Hospice: "You do death for a living."

I suppose that's the way some people see this work.  Some shake their heads with great sadness and say things like, "I don't know how you do it."

Others say with great solemnity, "I don't know how you keep from being depressed."

Still others are filled with a sense of awe and say, "If I did what you do, I think I'd want to go home from work every night and hug a tree."

And, my personal favorite: "Oh, I so admire people like you. You are living saints."

Clearly they don't know me, or many of us who are Hospice professionals. I do confess, however, that I neither try to dissuade or disabuse them of the thought of sainthood as applied to me, personally or any of my Hospice colleagues in general.

Because, you know, that's not the way I see Hospice work. At. All.

Then again, I'm an unrepentant, self-avowed Jesus freak. Which means I believe in life eternal. And, the communion of the saints. And resurrection.

Which means I believe in hope.

Hospice work is the most hopeful work I've ever done. Because, I keep learning, over and over again, that before there can be resurrection there must be death.

It's a simple truth, really, and simple truths are so easy to dismiss. Because most of us want to bypass the death and dying stuff and move right into resurrection.

Oh, and because I'm a total Jesus freak, I am absolutely passionate about full inclusion: believers, non believers, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, secular humanists and, my personal favorite: Nones. AKA: SBNR (Spiritual but Not Religious)

One of the real joys of this work is that I am sometimes asked to preside at the funerals of my patients.  Well, no one has a "funeral" anymore. It's all about "Memorial Services" and "Celebrations of Life."

If you've been following religious trends and "The Rise of the Nones", it will probably come as no surprise to you when I tell you that I rarely do funerals or memorial services in churches.

I would say that, conservatively, ninety-nine percent of the services at which I officiate are in the chapel of funeral homes.  I've also officiated at a memorial service in the very large conference room of a public library as well as at a country club.

There are also the services I've conducted in a state park, by the lake, on the beach and in a boat, after which followed the scattering of ashes.

I've used excerpts from "The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, " "The Velveteen Rabbit", "The Little Prince," and "The Giving Tree," which speak the message of the reasons and purposes for life as well as that of death in a way that echos the gospel message but doesn't hit them over the head with the same gospel that, for many of them, has been used as a weapon of judgment, punishment, and intimidation.

I've also used readings from sacred writings of a wide variety of religions and cultures which bring people great solace in their grief - to know that their experience is shared by people across a wide variety of geographical locations and different times in history.

They've all been individual and unique and distinctive, with things I never would have had the liberty to do in the confines of a church sanctuary.

The picture above is from a Memorial Service I did for a "24K Parrot Head". That is, a "solid gold" fan of Jimmy Buffet. You know, "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and "Margaritaville".

As you can see, we set up the front of the chapel in the funeral home as a beach scene, complete with palm tree and beach chair and flip flops in the sand. Yes, we sang "Come Monday" but we also read some Alfred Lord Tennyson and there was a proper Commendation right from the BCP.

It was, at times, solemn and at other times, lively and funny. It was, in a word, wonderful. A real celebration of life which didn't pull any punches about the sting of death, but with real faith and hope in the eternal life which is the gift of the Resurrection.

No, we couldn't have sung . . . .
Come Monday It'll be all right,
Come Monday I'll be holding you tight.
I spent four lonely days in a brown L.A. haze
and I just want you back by my side.
...... in church - well, not in any Episcopal church I know - but that was how this family chose to express the tension of their grief and their belief in eternal life. 

You don't see that? Okay, well then here's a nickle's worth of unsolicited advice: Don't do Hospice Chaplaincy.  Or, a funeral outside a church.

Oh, and by the way, you should know that after this song and the proper Commendation came the playing of taps and the ceremony of the folding and presentation of the flag by a few young military men to the deceased's son. 

Buffet, flip flops, Tennyson, The Book of Common Prayer, a wee bit of scripture, Taps and the American flag. When you're 64 years old and your life has been cut short by cancer, you should have the service that expresses everything you believe because what you believe will be part of your legacy to your children and family and friends. It will also be a source of solace and comfort for them as they grieve your loss.

And, the church ought to be there, even if the service is not - can not be - held in an actual church. 

Which is why I'm there, and part of the reason funerals are such a joy to me. It really is some of the best evangelism the church has to offer. And, some of the best theology the church has. 

Think of me as your own private missionary, going out into the world to represent the church and do the work of its mission, as well as bringing people back into the church. 

It's a real pontifical ministry. (Wiki: The English term derives through Old French pontif from Latin pontifex, a word commonly held to come from the Latin root words pons (bridge) + facere (to do, to make), and so to have the literal meaning of "bridge-builder".)

It builds bridges between personal faith and institutional religion and all sorts of estranged relationships on many levels, personal, familial and corporate.

Except, apparently, some don't get this. 

Awhile back, I admitted an 86 year old patient who died within 10 minutes of my arrival. His 84 year old, very-active-still-playing-golf wife described him as a 'lapsed Roman Catholic'. She was an Episcopalian and member of a local church.

"Well," she said sadly, "I'm pretty lapsed myself. These past three years since he had the stroke and confined to bed my life has really revolved around him."

"I haven't been to church," she said, "because I'm a solid eight o'clocker and I just can't get anyone to stay with him while I go to church. You know, like I can to play golf."

She looked at me sheepishly and said, "No, wait. I'm lying. I don't go to church because I can't. I'm just so angry with God right now, I can't go. This wasn't supposed to happen. Not this way. I was supposed to go first. He promised. What am I going to do without him? I'm so angry, I can't even listen to music. I can't. And, I love music. It's always fed my soul. And, I just can't. I know. I know. It's awful. But, I just can't. Not if I'm going to be able to keep it together and take care of him."

And then, her husband took a few deep breaths and died.

She wept and I held her and then I called the nurse to come and pronounce him.

While we were waiting, I gently encouraged her to consider what she might want to do in terms of a funeral. "Oh, no. She said. There won't be any funeral. He did not want anything to do with the Catholic Church and I haven't been to church in three years. So, there's that."

"Wait," I said, "I know your rector and he is a kind and generous man. He'll be wonderful."

"Oh, I know that," she said. "He always makes sure that I get the altar flowers at Christmas and Easter. And, I'm really grateful for that. It's just that ..  . well . . . I just can't."

"Look," I said, "If you aren't ready to go back into the church with all the music and everything, at least consider having a graveside service."

"Oh," she sighed, "why bother? No one will come!"

"Of course they will," I said. "You'd be surprised how many people will show up."

"I just . . . I just can't," she said.

"Okay," I said, "you don't have to. I'm just suggesting that you think about it. Your husband will be cremated, so you don't have to decide right away. You can do it months from now. When you're ready and able. And, when you're ready, call me. If it makes it easier for you, I'll do the service."

A look of relief came over her and she said, "Oh, would you? I don't want to hurt my rector's feelings. He's really a lovely man. I was on the search committee and he's exactly what we wanted. He's young and he has lots of energy. And, I'm ashamed to admit this, it's why I just can't . . . I just . . . I'm too sad and tired to have that much energy around me right now. You know?"

I chuckled and said, "Well, I've been waiting most of my life to be 'old enough' to be trusted with this sort of sacred task. I just didn't know being 'old enough' would come so soon."

We laughed and made a few 'old fart' jokes. I stayed a bit longer, let her and her family and friends who had come in some prayers, and left her with my contact information.

The next morning, on my way to my second patient visit of the day, I got a phone call. She and her daughter had decided to have a simple graveside service. Next week, if that's okay with you. Book of Common Prayer service. 1928 BCP? Well, no, it's okay. You can do Rite I or II, doesn't really matter. Oh, but please wear proper vestments. My husband would have liked that.

I asked if it would help if I called her rector to let him know about her husband's death and the planned graveside service. Again, she sounded greatly relieved. "Oh, would you? That would be really terrific. He's really a lovely young man and I just don't have the strength. I don't want to hurt his feelings, but I have to do this to take care of myself."

I told her I understood completely and reassure her that he would, too. I said my goodbyes, hung up and immediately called her rector.

I filled him in on all the details and could not have - not in a million years - predicted his response.

"Well, he said with a deep sigh of disappointment, "the church has failed her."

"What?" I said, convinced I hadn't heard him correctly.

"We've failed her. We haven't gotten out the message of our radical, inclusive welcome."

"Well," I said, "don't discount yourself like that. She knows she's welcome there. She still considers herself a member - a solid eight o'clocker. She was just so concerned not to hurt your feelings."

"This is just the way she's grieving. I mean, she told me that she hasn't even been able to listen to music for the past three years. That's how vulnerable she's felt and how well-defended she's been. So, the church hasn't failed. You haven't failed. No one has failed . . .  . . . . . ."

"Oh no," he said, cutting me off. "I've failed. The church has definitely failed. Her husband will not have a church service. That's a failure."

I could feel my Portuguese blood starting to get hot. So, I took a deep breath and gave it another go.

"You know, ______, it's not about the church. It's not about you. It's about her. This is the way she's handling the pain of her grief and her anger with God right now. She'll be back to church. Just give her some time to grieve, and she'll be back."

"No," he said firmly, "I've failed. We have failed. The church has failed. The church won't be there for her in her time of need."

That's when my Portuguese blood reached the boiling point. I really struggled to stay calm but I'm sure there was no missing the passion in my voice.

"Really?" I said, "Seriously? And, what do you think I am? Chopped liver? I'm the church, too, you know. Think of me as a missionary of the church, carrying out your mission of radical, inclusive welcome. So radical and so inclusive that we'll even meet her where she is and not insist that she come to where we are. Think of me as an evangelist, bringing the good news of God's unconditional love even to the grave. I'm the church, too, you know? The church will be there."

There was a long pause and he said, "Well, I appreciate your effort, but I still believe that the church has failed her. We've got to do a better job of getting the word out."

My "effort"?!? My "effort"? !?

I took a deep breath and said, "Okay. Fine. Whatever. Well, then, bless your heart. Just thought I'd let you know. Because, you know, it's what she wanted. Bye now. God Bless. Have a nice day."

On one level, I understand what this young man is saying. Unfortunately, his understanding of the church is much, much different than mine. Smaller. Much, much smaller. Less "catholic". More centered around the institution and business of being church.

The Church on the corner of Rector and Building.

I suppose when you are young (or, younger than me) and you (think you) have something to prove and you are trying to build up a congregation, your metrics of success and failure are different than, say, a Hospice Chaplain who doesn't have to worry about The Four Killer B's of parochial ministry:   Budgets, Buildings, Boilers, and Bishops.

So, at the graveside service, there were at least fifty people in attendance, many of them members of the Episcopal church.  Solid eight o'clockers. They were so appreciative of my presence there and thanked me profusely.

After the service, several people came up to me and said, "I'm so glad my church was here for her and her family to honor his life. Just like the Prayer Book says, 'Even at the grave, we make our song, Alleluia, alleluia. alleluia!'. Thank you."

Some people do get it.

There is great joy in funerals. All those things we say in the Prayer Book are true. Even in the midst of death, we celebrate life. Life is changed, not ended.

The greatest joy of funerals is that it grounds me, spiritually, in the rest of the Hospice work I do.

On this All Souls, All Saints weekend, I give thanks for all those souls who have entrusted their dying and their death and funerals to me.

They have been my best professors in pastoral care. They have taught me about the mystical sweet communion of saints and the church's role in it.

Not to control it, but to bless those who come into it in baptism and those who leave with a commendation to God.

And, to be fully present, as well, to those whose path to God has been different from the particular one I follow.  There are, in fact, many paths, but one way to God.

The church is there for them, too. Meeting them where they are. Creating a sanctuary - a safe space - where that which is holy and sacred for them. You know, just the way Jesus did.

As Mother Jones famously said, "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."

And, as Nehemiah (8:10) says, "For the Joy of the Lord is my strength."


I'm here! Now what? said...

Thank you for this reflection!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You are most welcome.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful reflection.... The moments of birth and death are such a privilege when shared. Sacred times.

rbarenblat said...

I love doing funerals, too. Though I come to them with a different theology, I love being able to take care of people in those times -- both those whose souls we are escorting out of this life, and those who grieve. I"m glad you were able to be present for this woman in her hour of need.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, anonymous. Next time, please leave your name.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, rbarenbiat. Our theology of pastoral care is the same.