Today we celebrate the life of a man who loved his family, his community, his church, his Creation, his world. He has outlived many of his friends, including his beloved partner. But many will come to celebrate this life, he has five adult children and each of them has an extended network of friends. We expect over 200 people to be with us.
When all is said and done what the family will likely remember about today is not the music, not the windy sermon by the preacher, not the cards, not the flowers, not even the sandwiches and tea (though they will deeply appreciate this offering from the church). No, what this family will remember is who showed up.
I remember visiting a widow in the first church I served. Her husband had recently died and our visit was mostly about her fresh grief. When I asked her what was helpful in getting through the days and nights she pulled out the condolence book that was signed by all who attended the funeral. This woman went through each page and pointed to names and said, “I remember her, it was so good of her to come…I remember him, he came from so far…and her, she was working but took time off to be here.” What mattered to this woman was the “who”, each face, each body, each name, triggered a sense that her husband had mattered to someone.
I remember that my mother took me to each and every family and friend funeral. I am not sure why it was me and not my Dad or my brothers but those experience were so very helpful in my vocation as a Minister. I saw grief from the other end of the church, from the vantage point of the one sitting at the back of the church (where my Mom wanted to sit). When I preside at funerals now I have a sense of what the person far in the back sees and hears.
One thing that my Mom would point to at every funeral was who was there. “(Name inserted) is here. You will notice (Name inserted) is not here. S/he is all talk, all tears, all hugs, but when you need him/her where is s/he? Do you know how you can count on someone? When they show up.” Now that was a bit harsh to say the least. But do understand that “showing up” is a major part of life and who shows up at the door when a loved one dies and who comes to the funeral is a big deal to the family.
There is a great quote by the former Minister of Pastoral Care at Riverside Church in New York that goes something like this, “when it comes to a death the grieving will always value the good casserole more than the bad theology.” The suggestion is that coming up with strange reasons why the death may be a blessing in disguise is generally a disaster and it is experienced in unhelpful ways, DON’T EVER SAY “it is all for the best” and “maybe God wanted your husband more than you did.” The casserole is always well received. Casseroles are another form of showing up.
When people ask me as a Minister “when someone dies what is the most helpful thing for me to say?” I respond that what one says is much less important than what one does. In fact (and this is rich coming from me) saying less is usually better. Showing up is the first step to good pastoral care.