Words of Remembrance

There are two funerals this weekend at Bethany. One topic I hear a lot about these days are what some call Eulogies and we in the United Church call Words of Remembrance. Whenever I am asked about this I always refer people to these excellent words written by retired Minister Erik Kolbell.

This was written on the occasion of the sad death of Amy Rosenblatt Solomon:

We dwell for a time in the midnight of our souls, pitch black and bitter cold. Absent of dimensions so that we do not know how much distance is yet in front of us, what monsters lurk behind or beasts beneath, or how tentative or sure-footed our next step will be. Without boundaries we are also without logic, or reason. Efforts to explain tragedy are heresies because they cheapen it, deprive it of its primal, awful power. They treat it as though it is a thing to be swallowed stoically, a bad bounce of the ball, an unlucky break, or, what always boils my blood, the mysterious act of an inscrutable god.

In fact tragedy is none of these things – if God is to be discerned amid such profound sadness it will not be found in pious explanations or hollow reassurances. A woman of such grace and kindness does not die because of a natural order of things. Children are not denied their parent nor parents their child, a husband is not denied his wife, brothers their sister, or friends their companion because forces are at work that we are incapable of understanding. Sometimes, too, too many times, the arbitrariness of life rises up against us and deals us a blow so stunning as to freeze us in our place and then render us forever changed. And this is what we are now; forever changed. Whatever particulars might have previously either bound us to one another or distinguished us from one another are now so secondary as to be meaningless. Now we are bound by Amy, by loss, and by all of the feelings that attend that loss. And that is no small thing on which to hang our pain, because if nothing else it tells us that in that immeasurable darkness, that midnight of our souls, we do not wander alone.

It is easy, particularly now, to feel terribly alone, especially in a season that bludgeons us with the expectation that joy will ring throughout the world, that hope will spring from the lamp in an ancient temple or the child in a Bethlehem manger. It is the time of good cheer because religions have deemed it so, because the days continue to shorten and the nights lengthen, and still, we must believe in something. Because the lilies have long since withered and gone underground, the willows have shed their filigree leaves and hang fragile and naked near the pond, itself frozen still with black ice. And still we must believe in something. Because the bitter wind batters the old shutters and blows through the eaves, the creaking house a refuge under assault from winter’s way, and still we must believe in something.

Sisters and brothers, if this is so, let us then believe in one another. In a world so torn by hatred, in our world, now caved in upon itself by this one unbearable loss, let us bear it together. What better remembrance of Amy’s inextinguishable light than that we now illuminate each other’s lives, look after one another, be exceedingly patient and unreasonably kind to one another. Look after the kids who were in their mom’s eyes the very essence of all that is good and pure in this world. Extend our love for Harris beyond these walls, this time and this place, and more so, beyond mere sentiment. Keep him in our hearts, and in our minds, but also in our lives. Remember that a bad theology is no match for a good casserole or a stiff drink. Hold tight to Ginny and to Roger, to Carl and John, be quick to listen and slow to talk, long on comfort and short on advice. And when words fail or are not called for, when they can only settle like dust in a twilit room, be willing simply to sit with the silence, as the poet Rilke said, and keep company with the one who is sad. It is in doing this that we heal those who have suffered most greatly here, and in so doing it is how we come to heal ourselves as well.

But when I say healing I do not mean that we will remove our pain as though it is a demon once and for all exorcised. What I mean is that we will at least soothe that pain the way cool water provides momentary respite for parched lips. The memory will stay with us. Amy will stay with us, as will her death, until it becomes a part of us – nerve and fiber and glance and gesture, never far away, but, with one another’s help, bearable.

And this is the privilege of what we must do for one another. No one else will do it for us. God has no hands on earth but ours. In helping each other in this midnight of our souls, lurching forward into a dark unknown, in Amy’s name we love each other a little bit more. As an old friend who also lost a child at a young age once told me, such love does not make the loss worthwhile, but it makes it worth something.

Nine years ago, on the eve of her wedding, Roger wrote a wonderful essay about Amy in which he included these lines from Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter:” “How but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?” Let me close with the words with which Yeats opened that poem. They are for Amy, and they are for us. “Once more the storm is howling, and half hid under the cradle-lidded coverlid my child sleeps on.

Closing

This concludes our service but not our celebration, our remembrance. That is something that will stretch from here on out into the future, into the weeks and months and years and miles to come. It is a small and cooling fire that will be rekindled any time any of us are gathered around a meal or a school or a workplace or a playground, and a memory is sparked. A glint will come across your face, you’ll smile a smile of recognition and gratitude, and you will tell the other, “This reminds me of a time not so very long ago, I was with Amy Solomon…” In the event you will remember it being better because she was a part of it. And you will be better because she was a part of you. And in our own way, I hope we will be there with you. One small recollection of my own: when Amy and I first met it was to discuss my participating in her and Harris’ wedding ceremony. After introduction and small talk I mentioned my love of the Grateful Dead. Her eyes lit up, a big neon grin crossed her face, and she said, “A Deadhead minister. Yeah, you’ll do just fine.” So with that in mind, let me close with a benediction not from the Book of Prayer but from Jerry Garcia and the song “Brokedown Palace”: Amy, fare thee well, fare thee well. We love you more than words can tell. Listen to the river sing sweet songs, to rock your soul. Amen.

Erik Kolbell is a United Church of Christ minister, formerly on the staff at The Riverside Church in New York City. He is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist. He is the author of three books: “What Jesus Meant,” “Were You There,” and “The God of Second Chances.”