*with thanks from my friend Rev. Mary Bredlau, MA, CT
- Acknowledge this will not be easy nor quick
- Talk about it with someone who will just listen
- Try to realize grief is neither orderly nor logical
- Surround yourself with comfortable people
- Realize this loss may stir up unresolved wounds
- Treat yourself with kindness and gentleness
- Consider that some “Big Whys” have no answers
- Believe that no two people grieve alike
- Seek out a grief support group or grief counselor
by Jonathan Aigner (www.patheos.com)
I haven’t been to many good funerals lately.
In a real sense, of course, that’s an awful thing to say. Funerals are necessary, but can they really be good? Well, I think so, in that they can be done well, or they can be a completely dead exercise.
In our attempts to gloss over its reality, we fail to admit that death still carries a mighty sting, a sting that affects all of us – even the strongest, the ablest, the most self-sufficient – and there’s nothing we can do about it. Death happens. It hurts. It sucks. It taunts us like a bigger, stronger bully, who has flattened us on the playground and asks, “What are you going to do about it?”
And we have no answer. We can do nothing.
So we try and ignore the ugliness of it, and try to just have a good time. We talk about how much we loved the deceased. How good or successful they were. Uncle Bob will stand up with a guitar and sing a song he wrote on the airplane about that one time they went camping and things got out of hand.
To formalize that denial, we call it a “celebration of life” service. Service may be too strong a word. Gathering. I’ve been to a few that could be called a party. Others failed miserably to be some sort of celebration. Coming face to face with a lifeless mortal husk tends to be a buzz kill. And the modern church tends to avoid any time when lament is the proper response. “That stuff doesn’t bring people to Jesus!” they say.
But, yes friends, it does.
When you lament over a death, you are in profound faith, maybe the most profound human faith possible.
You’re saying to God, through your grief, anger, despair, “Where are you? If only you were here, it would make all the difference.”
A “celebration of life” points to a dead person. A funeral points to the cross.
A “celebration of life” sidesteps grief. A funeral confronts grief head-on.
A “celebration of life” ignores resurrection. A funeral depends on resurrection.
Here are a few ways to keep a celebration of life from breaking out at your funeral.
1. Preserve a worship service. The Christian story is the focus, particularly God’s mighty acts through Jesus Christ that broke the curse of death.
2. Don’t deny the reality of grief. Death is awful. Grief is a natural response. Don’t tell the bereaved to smile, be happy. Don’t paint God as the ultimate cosmic jerk with, “God just needed another angel.” Shut up, and sit with them in their sorrow.
3. Point to the cross, not the casket. I can’t remember a funeral when someone, either eulogizer, family member, or minister didn’t say, “We’re here to celebrate his/her life, not mourn his/her death.” Actually, we are there to mourn loss, and more importantly, shake a defiant fist at death, point to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and say, “This is not the final word.”
3. Stick to the liturgy. Last year, the church where I worked was called upon to hold a funeral for a five-year-old who lost her life in a tragic accident. When I walked into the Sanctuary, the sight of the closed casket was overwhelming. My only coherent thought was, “Caskets aren’t supposed to be small.” There are simply no words. And too often when we try to force the words, we say silly, stupid, harmful things. Liturgy gives us the words when we simply can’t find them. So we sang, and we prayed, and we read, and we proclaimed.
4. Serve Holy Communion. There is no better time. When our hearts are broken, we cling to the great mystery of faith.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
5. Shun sentimentality. Who cares that I was a cute baby or earned a weird combination of degrees or held positions or possessed a dry, ironic humor that caused more stifled giggles than loud eruptions of laughter? Who cares that I wrote a blog? Who doesn’t have a blog these days? Who cares that I loved baseball? Who cares that I hated clowns, football, and parades? My friends and family can have lunch in the fellowship hall afterwards and talk about all those things if they choose. If they want to remember me, eulogize me, laugh and cry about the good times, fine.
But not at my funeral. Funerals aren’t celebrations of human life. Funerals are proclamations of another life, a life that ended in a death that ended in a life. That is the life worth celebrating.
Death sucks. It just sucks. And when we lose someone we love, we remember how badly it sucks. And we helplessly face the fact that we can’t do a damn thing about it.
It’s not supposed to be that way. But Jesus lives, and so shall we. And that makes all the difference.
(The following is a plan I’ve put together for my own funeral, which I hope is not for a long, long time. It follows the order outlined in The United Methodist Book of Worship.)
A SERVICE OF DEATH AND RESURRECTION
Dying, Christ destroyed our death.
Rising, Christ restored our life.
Christ will come again in glory.
As in baptism Jonathan put on Christ,
so in Christ may Jonathan be clothed with glory.
Here and now, dear friends, we are God’s children.
What we shall be has not yet been revealed;
but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.
Those who have this hope purify themselves
as Christ is pure.
THE WORD OF GRACE
Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live,
and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
I died, and behold I am alive for evermore,
and I hold the keys of hell and death.
Because I live, you shall live also.
Friends, we have gathered here to praise God.
We come together in grief, acknowledging our human loss.
May God grant us grace, that in pain we may find comfort,
in sorrow hope, in death resurrection.
HYMN – UMH #64
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Let us pray.
O God, who gave us birth,
you are ever more ready to hear
that we are to pray.
You know our needs before we ask,
and our ignorance in asking.
Give to us now your grace,
that as we shrink before the mystery of death,
we may see the light of eternity.
Speak to us once more
your solemn message of life and of death.
Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.
And when our days here are accomplished,
enable us to die as those who go forth to live,
so that living or dying, our life may be in you,
and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us
from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord.
HYMN – UMH #126
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
MIT FREUDEN ZART
PROCLAMATION AND RESPONSE
OLD TESTAMENT LESSON – Isaiah 40: 1-8
UMH pg. 754 – Psalm 23
NEW TESTAMENT LESSON – Revelation 21: 1-7
There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood
GOSPEL LESSON – John 1: 1-5
AFFIRMATION OF FAITH – UMH #881
The Apostles’ Creed
HYMN – UMH #707
Hymn of Promise
Receive Jonathan into the arms of your mercy.
Raise Jonathan up with all your people.
Receive us also, and raise us into a new life.
Help us so to love and serve you in this world
that we may enter into your joy in the world to come.
THANKSGIVING AND COMMUNION
TAKING THE BREAD AND CUP
THE GREAT THANKSGIVING
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give our thanks and praise.
(The pastor continues the thanksgiving.)
with your people on earth
and all the company of heaven
we praise your name and join their unending hymn:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
(The pastor continues the thanksgiving.)
in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ,
we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving
as a holy and living sacrifice,
in union with Christ’s offering for us,
as we proclaim the mystery of faith.
Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
(The pastor continues.)
All honor and glory is yours, almighty Father, now and for ever.
THE LORD’S PRAYER
BREAKING THE BREAD
GIVING THE BREAD AND CUP
PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
HYMN – UMH #308
Thine Be the Glory
DISMISSAL WITH BLESSING
All Souls Day… Day of the Dead…Dia de los Muertos… today we remember those who have gone before us in death… our personal saints who have lived among us. Who are your souls…your dead loved ones whose lives live on in you?
I gather flowers for the dead. I have been at this shady harvest for more than 30 years, training with the best: Martha deBarros from the Zen Hospice Project of San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC); Frank Ostaseski, cofounder of Zen Hospice and founder of the Metta Institute; and Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center’s Being With Dying program. We practice light and grave accord with the dead. Holding solemn ground at the threshold of the Great Matter, we are also intimate and joyful.
Last spring on a brilliant Sunday afternoon 84-year-old Daigan Lueck, Zen priest, poet, and painter, died peacefully at home in the heart of Green Gulch Farm. Daigan and his wife, Arlene, are deep Zen practitioners and friends of our family. When I heard that he had died, I entered the tangle of our Muir Beach garden to harvest the astringent herbs needed to bathe Daigan’s body: pungent white and black California native sage, English peppermint and shadowy yerba buena, rosemary, camphor rose geranium, and yerba santa, gathered from the stony paths of Mount Tamalpais where Daigan loved to walk.
Arlene and an intimate group of friends bathed Daigan’s body with the fragrant herbs. Rubbing alcohol closed the pores of his skin. With mindful care, Daigan was dressed in his monk’s robes and arranged in state in the room where he had died. A simple shrine was set up at the doorway as practitioners arrived to sit in meditation with Daigan for the next 24 hours.
In the SFZC tradition we mark four essential ceremonies for attending the dead: the ceremony of bathing and sitting with the body, the cremation ceremony, the funeral or memorial service ceremony, and finally the ceremony of interring or scattering the ashes of the deceased. For each occasion scented flowers participate in the ritual.
I give full attention to the plants that I harvest for the dead. Like apothecaries throughout history, I am guided by the evocative alchemy of aroma. Ancient families of scent are exuded by the plant world. Musk, resin, mint, floral, ethereal, acrid, and foul scents are expressed, according to some scientists, in exact geometrically shaped molecules that fit precisely into distinct neural niches in the nasal epithelium, triggering primal response in the brain.
My neural network was firing long and strong as I harvested the plants for Daigan’s body. Memory and scent intertwined in grave accord. From the edge of the garden, Prospero’s Rose poured dark burgundy fragrance into the waiting chalice of my collecting vessel. “Be cheerful, sir,” Prospero’s Rose whispered, evoking Daigan’s favorite passage from The Tempest, “Our revels now are ended.”
I mixed the floral tones of rose, jasmine, and daphne with the acrid herbs of antiquity. Daigan was a pungent poet, never sentimental. Rue and tansy came to his deathbed to pierce the veil of sorrow with their scent, and stinging nettle was laid down with wormwood to stanch the raw wound of mortal existence.
At his cremation ceremony a few days later, close to 50 Zen students gathered for Daigan in the inner crematory chamber. We chanted the Dai Hi Shin Dharani [Mantra of the Great Compassionate One] and covered his cardboard coffin with drifts of richly scented rose petals collected over the last year of his life. Underneath the floral glory I tucked one of Daigan’s early poems beneath rank pennyroyal and purple nightshade, essential medicine from the underworld to accompany this poet priest on his fiery journey:
Ready at last to stop
shaking a fist at the sky
and the passing traffic
drop your heavy bag
empty your laden pockets
stop, breathe, sit
and let yourself cook
until you’ve smoked out
all the bitter taste
and are ready to
be chewed on by
the ten thousand
of this present moment.
—David Daigan Lueck
Wendy Johnson is Tricycle’s longest-running columnist. She is a lay dharma teacher and the author of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World.