It's awfully hard to explain to people what an Episcopal priest does. For the most pare, we Episcopal priests don't "DO" much--oh, there are sacraments and such, but those take up very little time. In a way I've come to embrace, Episcopal priests don't 'DO' much at all. Our job is to 'be PRIESTS' in this world.
But today, I realized one thing I do 'do'.
I officiated at a funeral for a great old guy from one of the three churches I serve in a funeral home in one of the 'Havens'--there's New, East, West and North Haven around here. No South Haven for some reason.
(It's like when I was in Waterbury there were Southbury, Woodbury...like that...'burys'.)
Folks in New England like to stick with a good thing.
Anyway, before my aside about place names in Connecticut, I was going to tell you something I DO.
At the end of the service--only a dozen or so people, just family and two invited guests--the guy's daughter kept hanging around. Everyone else had gone, all her relatives, for 10 minutes or so, and she was still by the open coffin (I don't like open coffins but John looked nice--peaceful and at rest) touching him, talking to him non-stop, straightening his tie (I never saw him in a tie but it was a nice tie) stuff like that.
Twice she sat down and then got up to go back to the coffin. Once she almost left but remembered something else she wanted to tell him.
I knew the funeral directors were getting anxious. They won't shut a coffin in front of family and would never make someone leave. Everyone else were out in their cars except the pall bearers who were waiting in the front hallway. Funeral Directors are, by and large, some of the best people you'll ever meet (except when they're NOT and then they are the worst people you never want to meet). The people at this funeral home are really good and I knew they'd never ask John's daughter to leave.
So, I went up to her by the coffin and said, "You know, it's time to go and I'll be with your father now. I'll stay right here with him until we go to the hearse and then I'll ride with him and see you at the cemetery."
She looked and me. "You'll really stay with him?" she asked through tears.
"I promise," I said and led her out of the room.
And I kept my promise. I always do.
One of the things I DO as a priest is stay with the dead person all the way. It's my job, I believe. Sometimes over the 1200 or so funerals I've been a part of, some funeral director isn't sure I should watch them close the coffin. But I do. I stand right beside them as they lower the head and fold up the cloths and lock the casket. It's what I DO. I've always felt I was responsible to stay with the person who is dead until they are at their grave.
This funeral director was great. He asked me if I wanted to walk in front of the coffin as they wheeled it to the front door. Of course I did. And I stand by the hearse as the body goes in and ride in the hearse to the cemetery. Then I get out of the hearse and lead the pall bearers to the grave.
That's just something I do by virtue of who I am as a priest. I accompany the dead to their resting place. And I sprinkle the dirt on the coffin and say the prayers and make the sign of the cross in the dirt on top of the coffin.
So the next time someone asks me what an Episcopal priest 'does', I'll remember to tell them, "I'm with you all the way to your grave...."
That ought to get a reaction or two....
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