Thursday, February 14, 2013

Is there life after funerals?

OK, over my 38 years as an Episcopal priest, I've officiated at between 800 and 900 funerals. I averaged between 35 and 45 for my 20+ years at St. John's in Waterbury (St. John's was 'the parish' of lots of folks I never encountered while they were living but who I walked to their graves). The one thing I know is that I've done more baptisms than funerals, so, in a way, I'm still ahead of the game.

Funerals are one of the most important things a priest does. It is a time of raw and exposed emotions and making sure it is a decent and orderly transition from this life to what comes next is vitally important. So I take my participation in funerals very seriously.

Funerals are times that can heal and restore long suffering relationships among family...and, funerals can rip apart the very fabric of a family's life going forward.

Today I did a funeral unlike any of the others I've ever done. It was as strange and eerie and weird and painful as anything I've ever experienced as a priest. I must write about it, if for no other reason but to lift the cloud from my heart and mind.

A week or 10 days ago, I got a call from John (not his real name) who told me his wife Mary was in hospice care and wanted me to be a part of her funeral when the time came. I remembered them, out of all the weddings I've done because I liked them so and John was the most nervous groom I've ever known. When I said to him, "repeat after me, 'I John take you Mary....'" He said, "I Mary take you John...." We tried again and he did the same thing. By that time the wedding party and the congregation were in hysterics and he said, loudly, "What? What?"

She had grown up at St. John's and I knew lots of her family. John remembered the classes they attended and told me I'd told them "you guys are going to make it". I don't remember that, but they did, for 17 years, the last 4 of which Mary battled cancer. When they were married their year old daughter was dressed as a flower girl and almost made it down the aisle before rushing into a pew with her grandmother....Of course I remembered them, I told John.

Mary had come back to CT from a hospital in Boston and then had to go to a local hospital in the middle of the snow storm. John was out plowing out their street and house so he could bring her home when she was released. As he battled the snow, Mary  died. For some reason, he wasn't called to the hospital from his pickup and when he arrived she had been pronounced. Her parents were there when she died, but John wasn't.

There was some rather extreme scene in Mary's room and the upshot of that, whatever it was, was that John and Mary's daughter and Mary's parents chose not to attend the funeral. So there was John, without his daughter and his in laws, to grieve alone.,

I don't judge anyone in all this--as I said, funerals can tear a family apart. But it has caused me to ponder what, if anything, could keep me from my child's funeral or what, if anything, could keep me from my mother's funeral.

Some of Mary's brothers were there so this unthinkable rift isn't along any clear lines. And, it was as troubling a funeral as I've ever experienced. What can ever span the divide such actions have created? How can any of them 'move on' with such a conflict raw in their throats? What healing can there be to soothe such pain?

On the way back from the cemetery, the funeral director (a great guy I've worked with many times) and I talked about how we would never forget this funeral, how it would haunt us for years, how we just couldn't get our heads or hearts around it.

My daughter laid to rest without me there. My parent buried without me present....I just have no categories to fit that into. And what does it say about the legacy and memory of Mary--who was a lovely, wondrous woman who battled bravely and whose death left those she loved so bitter and hurt and angry that they could not be together to grieve and say 'good-bye'.

A chapter in the stuff I've written since I retired is called "Is there Life after Funerals?" I may need to revise it to include this funeral, though I'm not sure I understand it enough to say anything of insight or value about it.

Ponder this: What pain/anger/bitterness could keep you from your child's funeral....or your mother's....?

I'm out of categories and compartments to fit all that into....

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.