FROM THE BOUNDARY
Sun, 04/24/2016 - 12:00am Barbados1
‘He’s dead and gone, lady’ – Part 1
The other day I went to a funeral. It’s not a habit of mine. At the last funeral I attended, of a dear former colleague, I sat at the back and behind an attorney. He talked to his neighbour the whole time and wrote out business cheques. He was even visited by his clerk with a file. Why did he go? Was it merely to be ‘seen’? I don’t know, but somehow it seemed to me to summarise so much of how we do our ‘thing’, a thing where we’re ever skating on the surface, where we strive only for approval and respect as if that makes us.
So – I keep away from funerals, at least if I don’t know the deceased personally. I wonder how many working man hours we lose through them, and even though we can’t really say we ‘knew’ the deceased and our ‘grief’ is signalled by attendance in funeral-chic but nothing more. Yes of course funerals are a social sign, a sign of community, and they’re also an object lesson, a ‘requiem in black’. Frankly, though, I much prefer the idea of celebration, like the young people at St. Lucy Parish Church who got into all sorts of trouble some four years ago because of what they didn’t wear. Perhaps they were more honest than the rest of us.
More often than not the officiating priest won’t have known the deceased and that, I think, was the case with my ‘other day’ funeral. As I understood the priest, the substance of his sermon was that we’d all better be very good else it might come out that in life we’ve been degenerates. He went on at length about Bajans who drink and utter profanities which, for him, seemed to be a national characteristic.
In other words, in terms of the life of this deceased it was a fudge, unless he knew something about the person which I doubt. At root, he was probably saying: ‘Look, you’d better be good else St. Peter won’t let you in’. Never mind the grief of nearest and dearest, never mind the joys, disappointments and graces of this deceased, forget that his life was itself a celebration, ignore the fact that God knew him by his name – death is a confrontation of rewards and penalties, heaven and hell, and it’s all couched in the language of admonition. I’m sure many get a sense of satisfaction from it, a feeling of ‘Yeah! That’s not me. I’m OK’.
I suppose that approach to funeral homiletics might be called ‘the Christian life’. In other words, the funeral is not really about the deceased and those who truly mourn. It’s about us, the living. We’re the subjects of the “object lesson”. Yet isn’t the Christian life something we explore Sunday by Sunday year-round anyway? Surely, if we take this line (and obviously not all do), we are missing out on something very precious.
For one thing, there’s grief and how we handle it. Remember this funeral is not yours. It’s a farewell for those who genuinely mourn. I know that the bereaved are often advised to ‘let go’, to shelve their grief and start living again, to stop ‘seeing’ the dead loved one sitting over there, or otherwise obsessing about him or her.
Yet, if someone has been in some way at the centre of your life, that person has become part of you. With death there’s been an amputation – and so there’s pain, much pain. The ‘whisperings’ of the dead are a form of therapy along with tears. It’s like a broken love affair when the loved one, now fled, once consumed us. It takes roughly two years for the intense pain to go. My mother died at the end of my first term at university and I wept for her pretty well until I graduated. However, I count myself as very fortunate. During that period I read George Painter’s wonderful biography of Marcel Proust. He reproduces a letter Proust wrote to a friend suffering bereavement. It was a very gentle letter in which Proust said words to this effect: ‘Don’t be afraid to mourn. Just know there will come a time when your loved one will return to you. You will feel it. And then they will never leave you again’. And that, I have to say, was my experience. I still wear my mother’s wedding ring and yes, once she returned, she never left me.
I remember a priest at another funeral saying that he didn’t know whether the deceased had made it to heaven, but he was sure we all hoped he had. So there we have a third subject for the funeral sermon – the after-life. Now, I must tell you that I’ve made it a rule not to preach on anything which I don’t know is true in my own experience. That makes preaching on the after-life a problem. There have been times in my life when I’ve felt I’ve ‘been’ in heaven or hell, and I’m sure you have too. One of the productive things in coming to ministry in middle age is that the range of our experiences is so much broader than if you’re young. I think it makes you less judgmental of the foibles of others, at least it should. After all, it’s so often a case of ‘been there, done that’. So yes: come, just come. I know exactly how you feel, and I will not, I cannot, dismiss you or rubbish you – for your shoes have also been mine. Jesus will understand and won’t cease to love you. Don’t you know yet he’s like your mother?
Go safely then, until the next time.
Reflection from the boundary: “Death may bring nothingness: fine. But let’s rise up and demonstrate it would be an unjust fate.” – (Miguel de Unamuno).