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