Later today I will conduct a funeral service for a woman who
never knew I was her pastor.
For well more than the three years that I have been visiting
her, she has had no short-term memory. She could talk at length
about her childhood, about her marriage and her husband, about
how they built the sound brick house in which she still lived.
But she had no short-term memory. And so, though she was gentle
and polite and always happy to see me, she didn’t know whom
this woman was who brought her paper-thin slips of Communion
wafer and teensy-tiny glasses of Communion wine.
And today, reading from the green book of Occasional Services
that I use on such occasions, I will petition for her eternal
rest and God’s perpetual light.
I’ve married far more people than I have buried.
Unexpected things happen at weddings: The limousine gets lost
on the way to the church so the bride arrives 45 minutes late.
The flower girl lets it be known to one and all that she has
to pee. The unity candle fails to light. The nervous groom
speaks his vows looking at me instead of his bride.
Funerals are different.
Nothing unexpected happens. The dead do not rise, the relatives
are not impolite, nobody shows up in jeans and a T-shirt or
laughs too loud. Instead, all wear their best clothes and
speak in soft voices as if somehow the body in the casket
might overhear the sad news that they are dead, and that’s
why all these people are here wearing pantyhose and aftershave.
Nothing unexpected happens, but every funeral is powerfully
different from the last one.
Thomas Lynch, a poet, essayist and, maybe most significantly,
a funeral director, writes, “All down the history of the species,
death was first and foremost an existential experience, the
trigger for the overwhelming questions.
and grief, along with sex and love, were and remain chief
among the reasons why poets and high priests, shamans and
soothsayers, held forth, and why cabinetmakers and livery
men, sextons and sin eaters evolved into the mortuary trades.
How much of what we do, from the ridiculous to the sublime,
would not be done if we did not die? In the blank face of
mortality we always ask, what’s next?”
Every time I watch families walk back to their cars from the
gaping grave, I know that all we have for answering the overwhelming
questions are more words.
And that words are powerful enough.
Standing at the open grave I say, “In the sure and certain
hope of the resurrection to eternal life . . .”
But we don’t really know what that means.
I say, “We commend to almighty God our brother and we commit
his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust
We don’t really know what that means, either.
I say, “The Lord bless him and keep him. The Lord’s face shine
upon him and be gracious to him. The Lord look with favor
upon him and give him peace.”
But we don’t really know what that kind of peace will
All we know is that somehow, in speaking of hope, hope returns.
Not as a disappointment deferred, but as a condition of our
So much of life is really, truly like death. We live through
so many of our own deaths: profound losses when loved ones
die, profound pain in divorce or illness, profound dislocation
when the circumstances of our lives implode.
So much of life is really, truly like death. Only there is
no pastor by our side, broadcasting the sure and certain hope
of a release from pain, no shaman commending us, body and
soul, to all that is elemental and good, no priest calling
down the shining of God’s face upon us.
When we die in the midst of our lives, there is no final destination
from which our loved ones will walk away, sorrowing, leaving
So how is it—or why is it—that even without the soothsayers,
we go on?
In W.H. Auden’s poem, the lover charges the beloved to “find
the mortal world enough.”
And the lover’s commendation is not to the grave or to perpetual
rest, but to nighttime and the mortal rest that joins them
in their sleep.
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms, till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Just as no two funerals are the same, even though the words
are the same, the love we bear for one another is never the
same as before, even though to say “I love you” is nothing
even remotely original.
But this is all we have of perpetual light in this life. This
is how we find the mortal world enough.
best thing I know is how to love,” my daughter Linnea writes
for her sixth grade assignment to describe the most important
thing to her. “I learned this,” she goes on. It was
not an innate gift, but a bone-deep practice she learned from
experience in all the kissing and mended sorrows, and made-up
quarrels and I-love-yous that surround her.
In speaking of love, love returns. Not as a zero-sum game,
but as a condition of our continued existence.
Which may be why our short-term memories leave us soonest.
Did the unremembered history of my bringing Alice sips of
wine and bits of bread matter nearly as much as when I was
doing it right then and there? Right then and there, when
she could taste the wafer and smell the wine and feel my hand
best thing I know is how to love,” Linnea writes.
It is not the perpetual light of God nor the eternal rest
of heaven. But doing what I do for a living, I know there
is always time enough for that later.
But for us and for right now, how else will we find the mortal
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