FUNERALS: ALREADY & NOT YET

Early yesterday morning, a retired pastor in our synod passed through death into the eternal care of our God. He died in his sleep. His beloved wife of 54 years, discovered his death when she awoke for the morning. You know her instincts were ready to go: call 911, call the family, call the funeral home, call the pastor, make arrangements, embrace loved ones – family and friends alike, have the service surrounded by so many . . .

But wait – we are in the middle of a growing pandemic. An ugly virus is taking over our world. We can’t do what we know. A trusted seminary classmate and his spouse are allowed in the home to pray. Family members are called and encouraged to stay home; they pray in small groups around their breakfast tables. Arrangements are begun by conference call. A celebration of life is to be determined. Friends call and write, no one is encouraged to come to the door.

It’s our new normal. Hopefully it won’t last for long, because It. Is. Not. Right.

We are finding ways to grieve apart – separated by six feet, across back fences. over telephone lines, in the great social media community – so near but so far with friends and family who are visible yet untouchable. We are learning to grieve in expectation of remembrance rites weeks or months away. We are trusting the One who holds us together in the separations to keep us in one community, one family, one Body.

Long ago I served in a community where the local cemetery would not allow winter burials. (It’s a long story of mismanagements and graves that were not always exactly where the map said they were.) Unlike this moment, we did have the blessing of timely funerals. But things just were not complete without burials. When spring came and the ground softened, the graveside services were scheduled. As we will need to do with TBD celebrations of life, we tried to space burials over days. It gave families their own times. It gave pastors respite between grief sharings.

We are going to need to plan for respite.

As we gathered at the graves, new tears were shed – not the tears of raw grief, but weeping with the lived reality of aloneness. Funeral words were once again spoken and prayers were prayed. The Lord’s Prayer has a different sound when it brings people back together and acknowledges the now experienced parting. And – something different – almost always, when the words were done and hugs exhausted, family members would pick up shovels and start to fill the grave from the pile of “earth to earth.” It was a special ritual for a special time.

I wonder if we need to start thinking about the remembrance services to come once we can leave our homes again. What aspects of the process will be new and need to be shepherded? What new rituals will be needed in the new reality? What respite will we need for ourselves? What will the new order and timing require us to trust and proclaim?

I we nsure we will still need to proclaim this:

“I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither present nor future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, [nor Safer at Home declarations, nor pandemic], nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Rest eternal grant him, Dear Lord.

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