On the fourth Sunday of Advent my dear mother-in-law died. She was 83 years old; she was a great woman and I will sorely miss her. One of the privileges of being the clergy person in the family is the opportunity to participate in and conduct funeral services. I honor this opportunity. But the experience is difficult, especially when you love the person so and are mourning yourself.
The experience brought to light several issues I have been wrestling with over the past 10 years.
1. I prefer for funerals to be held in churches, not funeral homes. I know it is easier to conduct the services and I know that majority of people who work at funeral homes are kind hearted good people. But a funeral home is not a place of worship. They are sterile environment and impersonal. They are not particular, comfortable, and equipped to honor the deceased with sacred music, prayers, and memorial words. If the family so chooses of course I will conduct the service and give it all I have. But I cant get over how the experience of grief can be assuaged by conducting the service in a house of worship.
2. This brings me to my second point. What if the family does not have a house of worship? I never have given this much thought but it was made more clear recently. Most people have some experience, even tangential, with a house of worship but most, these days, do not have the necessary ties that bind to a local congregation. I was amazed how quickly those ties can be loosened and nearly unrecognizable. At my mother-in-law's funeral the room was filled with people who at one point in their lives knew the ins and outs of church life. It is not as if they are all fuming mad at God or never had absent feelings in their hearts that only God can fill. Religious commitment takes time and intention. It is easy to move on, to misplace and almost forget to the point when there is a funeral the normal steps at planning and participating in a funeral service become unknown. I saw this as well meaning and lovely people struggled to find the right ways to express grief by the choosing of music and poetry that expressed for them the moment of loss and pain in their lives. The choices were fine but they could have been given greater expression within the Christian tradition.
In many ways this last point is a wake up call for me as a pastor. Perhaps religious communities are not clear about the depth of their religious traditions! What happens when people dont know Precious Lord, Take My Hand or Children of the Heavenly Father, or Be Thou My Vision? Well they turn to what resources they have collected in their lives.
3. I go to church because I want to be surrounded by people who are tied to a living tradition: the living faith of the dead. Because I want to be apart of a community that is going to sing, prayer, sermonize, and worship brothers and sisters to heaven. Because I want the organ to vibrate the pews, hymnals to be opened, prayers said responsively, folk to say thanks be to God after the gospel is read, to say the Lord's Prayer together, to know the 23rd Psalm in the KJV and know that is a psalm of David who also lost a son and knowing that changes the psalm in dramatic ways.
This is not a critique of my family by any means. I was proud of the way they came together, supported one another and held each other up during a difficult moment. I suppose more than anything it is a part of the mourning of my mother-in-law and an understanding of life.