Wednesday, October 30, 2002

What makes a good funeral?

While I cannot say that I have been to a lot of funerals (well, more all the time -- one does get to that age), they do take up a lot of important space in my memories. Some of the important ones that I think about from time to time are the funerals for:

  • My aunt in Lake Charles, LA that my family traveled to, but my sister and were not allowed to attend as we were "too young" (drat!);
  • John Kennedy, on television at my grandmother's house in Oklahoma;
  • My father (a small memorial service) that I was a reader at;
  • Ron, one of my most important friends, who sat up with me the night my father died (it ended up as a wonderful reunion of friends who had not seen each other for years);
  • Fr. Ed Murphy, the Episcopal priest that first lead me to really knowing Christ;
  • Two this last year in our parish, for groups of 4 and 5 murdered young siblings each (one of these every decade or so is enough, two in a year . . .).

I just this evening ran across the web version of the Fall Book Section of US Catholic. It features an interview with Thomas Lynch, a writer and poet who is also, in his own words, an undertaker. The only problem with this interview is Lynch's gift for graceful and economical expression makes amost every bit something you would like to quote.

The interview starts out with his commenting on what a good funeral does -- it gets the "dead where they need to be and the living where they need to be." He was then asked Do you think the rituals of the Catholic funeral rite are feeding people?

I do. I'm impressed that Catholics have always insisted on having the body there, on hauling the bad news into church and saying: "And yet I tell you a mystery." It gives us whatever the consolations of our faith may be.

All ritual behavior is an effort to act out things that are hard to put in words. But now everybody wants to overexplain the metaphors. Why have them if you're going to explain them? The beauty of a metaphor is you don't have to say anything! We don't have to know exactly why it is we're putting this pall on the casket; just do the thing. We are constantly trying to say, "Now this incense means this." Just sprinkle some around, and let people use their imaginations. That is the beauty of Catholic funeral liturgy: symbol and ritual and metaphor. The meaning overwhelms the sense. You don't have to get it; it will get you.

Another bit, that echoes some of the experience we have had lately in detention ministry, the importantce of simple presence:

You've said that as a funeral director you care for the living by caring for their dead. Do you look at what you do as a vocation?

I don't confuse what I do with ministry in a religious sense. I think of it more as an exercise in humanity. When the phone rings at 3 o'clock in the morning, that does feel like a calling, because someone's calling you at odd hours to say the worst thing that could happen has happened. What do we do about it? We answer the phone. The priest in my town often asks me, "Why do they call you first?" I tell him, "I answer the phone." That's how you get people's trust. We forget how powerful our presence is.

The clergy do not know the power—the huge, magic medicine, the voice of God—that is brought when they walk into the room where a death has occurred and stand upright. This says to the person who is buckled over with this hurt, "You could give this to God." I see this happen all the time.

When parents are burying their dead children, the fact that they can walk upright is to me a sign that God is—otherwise they'd be in the dirt. They would not walk; they could not speak. I've seen people absolutely incapacitated with heartbreak. The fact that they get up is a statement of faith and of God's care.

Strong stuff that I will be returning to in meditation and prayer.
On Amazon you can find these books and poetry by Thomas Lynch:

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