Notes from a funeral

Published October 1, 2011

7 pm – 16 hours to funeral
Open casket. Thirty-six years of age: husband, father and heart-attack victim, wearing jeans and a T-shirt that reads: Life is simple: Eat, Sleep, Drink Beer.

9 pm – 14 hours to funeral
I meet with the widow and her daughter, age 12. Mary, the widow’s sister, is with them for support. Mary takes up a lot of room for a person who stands just over five feet tall. She ignores my outstretched hand.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” I say. “My name’s Lee.”

“My name is Mary,” she replies, grimly. “I’m a pagan.”

“Nice to meet you, Mary.”

“That’s right,” her nodding head seems to say, “you heard what you heard.”

The family has no church affiliation but has asked for an Anglican priest. I walk them through the service and present the choices. The widow sits beside me, pale, shocked, drained. The daughter sits across from me, pale, shocked, drained. The aunt paces cat-like behind her chair. Then she stops abruptly, pokes at the cover of my Bible and asks: “Is there anything in there that isn’t about God and Jesus?”

I read aloud from 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13: “…Love is patient, love is kind….”

When I have finished, she says, “Pretty long, isn’t it? Don’t you have anything shorter?”

The rest of the meeting is a slow-motion train wreck. In my fevered memory of that day and that family, I recall many snorts and barking laughs in response to my suggestions. Finally, the daughter, her patience gone, sighs heavily: “Mom, do I have to stay here for this stuff?”

Only…she didn’t say stuff.

I don’t remember her mother’s sad, mumbled reply. What I do remember is her aunt’s Cheshire-cat grin. I also remember my sense of having failed to engage these people as Mary leads her niece away.

The next exchange is equally heartbreaking. “Just pick whatever you want, Father,” the wife sighs. “Just…whatever.”

1 am – 10 hours to funeral
I look down at my notebook. Its’ spine has long since snapped and it lies broken upon my desk, covered with the scrawls and rewrites of an equally lifeless service that might take some 20 minutes. I catch myself dwelling on the fact that it’s sure to edify absolutely no one.

9 am – 2 hours to funeral
OK, I’ll admit it. I am terrified of the pagan woman. My bad night’s sleep has confirmed it. Now, with little noises of disgust, I flip open the notebook and with angry flicks of my pen, load the service up with everything the rubrics will allow: back in go the Comfortable Words and Psalm 121; back in go the Creed and the Confession; back in go the hymns, the first reading and Psalm 23; and back in goes the sermon, the content of which I haven’t a clue about. Then, I push the whole lot at my startled secretary, asking her to write it up and send it to the funeral home. I head to my car, praying for inspiration.

11:15 am – Funeral
I have no sermon. A huge, liturgically-dense service packed with Christ’s words and God’s revealed wisdom, yes, but not one thought of my own. Outside, a windstorm pushes tree branches in the church yard back and forth, back and forth across the stained glass windows of the chapel. The screechy, scratchy sound dials up the pain of my pounding headache to almost unbearable. When I do rise to read the gospel and deliver the sermon, I open my mouth and this is what comes out:

“I don’t know why the world is so awful. I don’t know why we have to suffer so much. I don’t even know the man this woman and her child are crying for-I won’t insult you by pretending I do-but I do know this: there is a God and he loves us more fully and completely than we could ever love each other here on earth. Many of you might be saying to yourselves: ‘Yeah, right, an invisible God.’ And you’re right. He is invisible. But God is like the wind you hear outside: what we see are things moved by it; things held in it; things shaped by it.

“This man may be gone, but just as God and the wind shape the whole world out there, this man has shaped the people here today: his wife, his child-all of you who have taken the time to come in his honour-bear the gentle, unmistakable marks of his passing and will carry them into the future with you. His daughter, as long as she lives, will carry him with her, as will his wife. In this, he will live on in you for your whole lives.

“So, be strong where he would want you to be strong and be gentle with yourselves, too. I don’t say, Do not grieve, because you have suffered a brutal loss. But I do say that when the sharper pains have dulled to an ache, you allow the sense of loss to be tempered by the certain knowledge that we are all carried and supported by an eternal wind-that great, singular, holy spirit that holds us, shapes us and carries us through this life and into the next where we will, all of us, be together once again.”

I find my seat and fall into it.

11:40 pm
I retrieve my books and papers from the pulpit in time to see the mourners parting before an unseen force passing through their midst. It is the pagan woman.

“That funeral,” she says, pointing at me, “was the best I have ever been to.”

I nod. Best one for me, too.

“Did you come up with that?” she asks.

“No,” I admit. “I just stopped getting in the way.”

The Rev. Lee Lambert is rector of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Russell, Ont.


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