All in good time

A dear friend of ours died last weekend. Florence was 94. We had known her for roughly 35 years. Her husband Marvis was a close friend as well. Florence survived him by 18 Forest_zpsa2bc1ba9years. I shake my head in amazement at time and what it means.

Now, I know I’ve concluded often enough that when someone lives well into their 90s, “She had a good, long life.” And that’s true. But for those for whom we care so deeply, it doesn’t matter the length of a life but rather the depth of grief we feel at the loss of that life.

That’s what we do when someone we love dies. We stop and contemplate not only their passing, but our personal loss.

Now, there are certainly other markers along the way by which we measure our lives and what has happened in them. We have birthdays and weddings and babies (although not everyone has a wedding or a baby). We have high school and college graduations (although not everyone has a personal experience with those either). Some mark their lives through a time of divorce or illness or a knee replacement. The fact is that while all of those celebrations and difficulties in our lives can hold deep and meaningful ramifications for us, we share them with relatively few others no matter how famous or infamous we may be. They are not generally shared with a larger community.

But death is another matter. Death is something we all share with each other. Every one of us will die. And almost every one of us will experience the death of someone we love.

One of the questions I’ve posed to young people just entering their teen years is whether or not they have ever attended a funeral. By far the answer is no. And that no means that they have, for the most part, never experienced the loss of someone they love.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want these young people to have that kind of an experience at such a tender age. But I have also advised some of their parents to make a point of taking them to the next funeral of an acquaintance so that they will have some idea of what it means to die and what happens in the short-term as a result. It’s my feeling that it would be easier to have been to a funeral at least once before they are attending a funeral of someone they love.

I was 17 before I attended my first funeral. It was for my almost-20-year-old boyfriend who had been killed in Vietnam. I have only snapshots in my mind of what happened that day. I remember being organized by his mother into a procession to enter the church sanctuary. I remember walking out of the church and seeing my best friend standing in the back in the standing-room-only crowd. I remember standing at the cemetery, watching the flag as it was handed to his father, jumping out of my skin at the gun salute, and seeking out the trumpeter’s location during the haunting strains of “Taps.” It was over. I don’t remember anything that was said at the funeral or the cemetery. It was done. We were all expected to just buck up and move forward in our lives. And yet, 40 and 45 years later, the ramifications of that life and death have come back to me in surprising ways through mutual friends, family, and complete strangers. But I don’t remember the funeral.

Since that time, I, like everyone else, have known the loss of parents and grandparents, colleagues and friends. My best friend who I can so clearly see in the back of the standing-room-only section of the church that day? Yes, I attended her funeral as well.

But one of the biggest problems with funerals is how badly some of them are carried out. If we are truly interested in beginning a time of grieving and closure, we need to be able to remember what was said, the music that was played or sung, who was present to share in the day. Funerals should be, in fact, times of celebrating the life of the one who died and, from a purely Christian perspective, a witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ who promises such hope beyond the funeral and the grave.

As my mind wandered during the sermon last Sunday, I was thinking about Florence and Marvis and all they have meant to me over the years. I found myself absolutely amazed that our paths even crossed in the first place and marveled even more that our relationship became much more than just crossing paths. I found myself in serious reflection of all they had been in their lives, the influence they had on others, and life lessons they imparted to me. In this instance I was unable to attend Florence’s funeral because it was so far away. I would not be able to share with others who were there to mourn and yet celebrate, to cry and yet laugh. To remember and be prompted to remember.

Some deaths come as a shock and there’s nothing much more we can do but just grope our way through a funeral. Helpful pastors or rabbis can help in all circumstances by putting into writing those thoughts they share that day so that years later a widow or child or friend can pull that paper out and read what they were not able to hear let alone take to heart.

The scriptures tell us that there is a time to every purpose under heaven. Among those are a time to be born and a time to die. Every death of a loved one presents a new season for us: a season to share, to remember, to mourn, to laugh, to just wonder how it was and why it was that we had come to love one so profoundly. Every life is a gift and to the extent that those lives have been given to us for even just a season in order that we might experience love, affection, teaching and learning, we should and ought to look forward to sharing those memories with others. Sometimes that’s the only way we can know the magnitude of the gifts each of our loved ones has been and how their lives have shaped the lives of others in very surprising ways. Gathering with the community at a funeral, as hard as that may be, is an act of love we can express for the living in the midst of grieving the dead.

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