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Sunday, January 18, 2015

God and Country

It is my privilege and honor to officiate, occasionally,  at the funerals of my patients.

It is an incredible opportunity to use the stellar liturgy and prayers of our Book of Common Prayer for pastoral care as well as evangelism.

I can't tell you how many times someone will come up to me, after the service, and say, "What denomination did you say you were with? The Episcopal Church? You know, I've been meaning to get back to church. I think this service gave me the kick in the butt I need to get myself to The Episcopal Church in my neighborhood. "

And, I've actually seen them there. When that happens, I have to tell you, it just makes my heart sing.

The most profound services at which I've been privileged to preside are the Military Funerals at the local Delaware Veteran's Memorial Cemetery 

I'm told that it was one of the last Veteran's Cemeteries built which includes a chapel. It's lovely, actually, in a stark, military kinda way. I love that one of the walls is all glass, which faces the Monument  to Fallen Heroes outdoors. As the gun salute happens outside, along with the bugler playing taps, everyone can see and hear it.

And, can I just say that the Air Force does the absolute BEST job? Bar none. Second is a tie between the Marines and the Navy. Alas, the Army does hold its own, but it's simply not the same.

The Air Force always - always - sends eight Very Young Men. Six to bring in the casket, three of whom also give the rifle salute. One is the bugler - I mean, he really, actually plays taps, unlike the AmVets who have a "trumpet" that has a recorded version of the taps one plays by pushing down one of the valves on the "trumpet". And one is sort of the "Master of Ceremonies".

It's really impressive.

The Navy and Marines send young guys, too. Generally, four. In uniform.  So handsome. So polite. So heartbreakingly young and dedicated and who make me so glad I'll never see my 20s again.

The Army generally sends four Really Old Guys from the local AmVets or VFW who really, really care about what they are doing and do it with lots of heart and dignity and respect.

There is something . . . oh, what's the word . . .  impressive . . . about the priest, in cassock, surplice, tippet and hood, greeting the casket at the door, covered in the American Flag, which they pull back just a bit to allow me to sprinkle the casket with Holy Water.

And then, there's the slow, silent, solemn procession down the long, lonely hallway into the chapel. Led by the priest, followed by the casket borne by the men in uniform, and accompanied by family and friends, it is, in its way, deeply emotional.

Each branch of the military has its own unique but highly stylized way of doing things - from the way it marches, to the head and hand motions, to he way it folds the flag. I have found the Air Force to be most rigid and stylized, even to the way they bow or raise their heads or fold the flag.

Freud had a word for it: Phallic.

Mind you, I am not a fan of the military. I don't like war, but I can't claim to be a pacifist. I'm afraid I don't have quite enough courage for that. I do have great disdain for the invocation of God's approval on the naming and killing of one's enemy "for God and country".

Indeed, I'm quite sure God weeps when we kill each other in God's name.

However, when it comes to the burial of one who was willing to lay his or her life down, not only for strangers but for the cause of "liberty and freedom for all", well, I think God is there.

As the re-presentative of God's church, it is a privilege to be there at the time of burial.

There is something deeply spiritual about the playing of Taps.
Fading light
Falling night
Trumpet call, as the sun, sinks in flight
Sleep in peace, comrades dear,
God is near.
Of course, it was originally meant to signify the end of the day of the soldier's work. It takes on deeper meaning when that soldier had died, and his work is finally done.

I'm not really certain how to explain what I feel when I'm asked to preside at one of these services. They are brief, not able to last more than 20 minutes according to the regulations of the Delaware Veterans Memorial Cemetery. That's actually 10 minutes longer than the service allowed at Arlington National Cemetery.

There's hardly enough time to read the Service of Committal, say (or sing, as I prefer) the In Paradesum, pray for those who are grieving and give a final blessing.

The military activities - folding the flag, the rifle salute, taps, the presentation of the folded flag and empty shells to the widow or family members - take more time than that.

It's the blending of the two, I think, that makes it so powerful. Two opposites, at least in my mind.

Which remind me that, taken to similar extremes, can do similar damage.

Which means that I have to admit, both are capable of similar good.

I was recently at the funeral of a clergy colleague who died rather suddenly. At the end of the service, the clergy were asked to form a line along the pews as the casket was borne from the church.

It was very powerful. 

I could hear Taps being played in my mind.

I know it sounds silly, but it helps to explain that lump in my throat every time I preside at one of these services. Especially whenever I hear Taps.

I find comfort in the words attributed to a former Archbishop of Canterbury who said,
"When we choose foolishly, God still reigns. And, when we choose wisely, God still reigns."
I believe he ended his statement calling us all to remain steadfast, therefore, in our faith.

In the face of all the military pomp and circumstance of flag folding and rifle shots, and in my role as presider of it all, it helps to remember that. 


Mark Harris said...

Really fine Lady Elizabeth. My sense too when I have done such services. Damn, you write wonderfully!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Good Sir. That's a fine compliment, coming from you.