When we gather at a funeral we are present for at least a few reasons. We come to express our heartfelt sorrow. We need places to express our true feelings. It is one thing to sit in front of one’s computer, read an obituary and cry till there are no more tears left. But there is something about gathering in a community to express our sorrow that is not only cathartic but also allows us to share with their loved ones what that person has meant to us. We also gather to support and be supportive of one another. That is what communities and friends and families do, that is the intent or purpose of these peoples we call home. And perhaps finally, we gather to look for meaning, to understand what this life, any life, all life, is really about. For the most part we can and do avoid this topic with endless distractions; work, family, gadgets, hobbies, entertainment, etc… All of these are important and make life what it is but they also provide an alibi to our quest to avoid the truly hard questions of life.
So we gather to express our grief, to support one another and to face these big questions. My all-time favorite book is a very short text by L’Arche founder Jean Vanier. The book is called Becoming Human, it is based on the Massey Lectures Vanier delivered on CBC Radio. Vanier says that what draws us together is our common brokenness, a sense that we carry certain broken places within that require others, nature, the Other, to heal us, to enliven us to make us whole. Further, Vanier says we can only do this with and for each other when we are together, in a community. His community are houses all over the world where persons who are challenged physically and mentally live as family with persons who are also challenged in those ways but like me can hide those qualities from the broader society. Vanier says it was only when he held the hand of a person who could not speak, who could not walk, who could not hear, that he truly learned how to communicate who he really was.
So stripped of all that we can use to hide how we feel, who we are and what we think, we gather at funerals to be present to others and to ourselves. At that place and in that spirit we become human, we lean into the spiritual, however you define that, and we find the answers, words or no words.
And there is the matter of what we say about the person who has died. How do we celebrate her/his life? Many of my colleagues get very personal, talk about the relational pieces of mother to the family, father to the family, husband to wife, grandparent, etc… I get that. But I like to widen the relational piece and talk about larger narratives that can feed that spiritual hunger that exists not just in the next-of-kin but everyone who is sitting in that room. Of course there needs to be an authentic expression of thanks for the relationships that mattered to that person and this is often expressed well in Words of Remembrance (or as some say “the Eulogy”) but fitting this life into a larger context is something the preacher can do with reference to Sacred Words of scripture and the broader community the loved one participated in.
I often look for places and words and relationships that the loved one lifted up in their life that connected to a larger theme. In some cases it is nature and landscape, in some cases in it community involvement, in some cases it is the cause of justice, in some cases it is an inner-directed life full of contemplation and in some cases it is the appreciation of the simple beauty and gifts that is life. Whatever its complexity and simplicity all lives have themes and narratives that speak to us and teach us about our common humanity, all lives make a difference. The reflection piece is the opportunity to connect the dots; from the personal to how we become human, from the tasks to the meaning, from the life to the gift that is Life.
We gather to make sense of it all. We speak to describe how we have connected this life or all of our lives, past and present. And we do this because we are human.