- Is there life after Funerals?
When I retired from full time ministry, I told a couple of the Funeral Directors I worked with that I would be available to do 'trade funerals'. (Two things from that sentence: 'trade funerals' are funerals for people who don't have any connection to a church but think of themselves, however vaguely, as Christians; secondly, what used to be known as 'morticians' prefer to be called 'Funeral Directors'.) In my 35 years as a priest, I've decided most of them deserve that title. They do much more than 'mortuary service'--embalming, dressing, burying people's bodies. The really good Funeral Directors deal with a lot of pain in their work. They 'direct things' for people who, because of grief or shock or guilt, aren't up to 'directing' things for themselves. Death catches people unawares, even when the lead up to the death has been months, if not years, of fear and suffering.
“When people die it is like a bird flying into a window on a chill February morning.” That is a line from a poem I read in college. It was a poem written by a friend of mine about her friend who died in Viet Nam. (Lord, it's been so long ago—that war that formed my generation one way or another—and it is still as new as today for me.) Lila's poem seems universal to me though. She talked about the shock and disbelief that death brings. “When people die it's like bears are loose in the streets, gobbling up the children.” That's why who don't fret about it during most of their lives, want clergy at their funerals. And that's why, people need someone to 'direct' the funerals for them.
Any how, I got a call just over two months after my retirement from Lou, a funeral director in Waterbury, telling me when this particular family with their particular needs came in, he knew I was the only person he would trust to do the service. Well, he had me hooked by appealing to my ego, which, a friend once told me, was 'as large as Montana'. So I said 'yes', then Lou, that sneak, told me it was a service at the funeral home, during the wake, for a 16 year old girl who had been raped and murdered by a friend of hers. That happened at the base of this enormous illuminated cross that soars above I-84 on the way to Waterbury. The cross is in a place called Holy Land. Holy Land was the creation of some overly-zealous Italian guy decades ago. He had the cross erected and then tried to recreate Israel in Connecticut. I've been up there before. The whole thing has fallen into ruins of Israel in the midst of a forest of sorts with paths through it going all the way up to the highest point in the area where the cross stands. A group of Filipino nuns now own the property, but it has become the hangout of teenagers from all over the area.
(An aside of import before more about Phoebe's wake. Lou, the guy who called me, is someone I've worked with a lot over the last two decades. His funeral home is well known and respected in the area and though it is 'an Italian funeral home', ethnicity being still important around Waterbury, many Episcopalians use it. One of my favorite people at St. John's was Nancy. She was a Warden, a remarkably active member, a generous and gentle woman and a dear friend. She used to make me egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches when I would go to her house for lunch. Some of the best of both I've ever eaten...that was Nancy's gift, to give only the best.
Lou was the funeral director who got the 'call' to collect Nancy's body from the hospital when she died. Her son and I were in her room when she passed through that wondrous and terrifying door to what ever comes next. She would be moved to the mortuary in the hospital, where Lou would pick up her body. But he came to the room instead and sat by her bed and wept, holding her dead hand. From that moment on I would trust him—as brusque and 'God Father Italian' as he appeared. “Hey, Father,” he would say over the phone when he called about a funeral, “I got one for you....” But I knew this: whoever cried at Nancy's deathbed was a friend of mine.)
So, when Lou called I would have agreed to do the service even if he hadn't massaged my ego. 'Death', after all, is what priests' DO. In my years since ordination I have officiated at well over half a thousand funerals. And sat by that many and more death beds. And been with many hundreds of families as one of the ones they loved was reaching out for the doorknob of that wondrous and terrifying door—the door all of us will open and enter sooner or later. God bless us. Really, God bless us....
There is an ancient Roman priest in Waterbury who is legend among the Funeral Directors of the city. One of them told me Fr. Spinelli performed over 200 funerals a year. In his 80's himself, he buried more people in a year than I buried in a decade. In my 35 years as a priest I've done over 500 funerals. Some of them were for people I never really knew who had families and friends who mourned them in ways I never experienced. And then there were several hundred who were members of my parish and friends of mine. And I tried to 'perform' (a terrible description of what I do at funerals, but not inaccurate) each one with the same focus and commitment as any other.
Funerals are vital and holy moments. Whenever we brush up against death, things get sacred in a hurry. Not nearly enough attention is paid, in my mind, to the importance of funerals in the training of priests. There is really nothing else, for a priest, besides the weekly observances of the breaking of bread for the community, that equals the obligation and opportunity of presiding at funerals.
We are rubbed raw with emotion when people die. (“When people die it's like a man man is in charge of the power plant: Light/Dark/Light/Dark.... When people die.”) There is no other moment when it is so profoundly necessary for a priest to be present. Not to 'clear things up' or say something meaningful, but simply to sit by the bed of the dying or hold the hands of the living and shake your head slowly when asked 'the meaning' of it all. That's what people need in a time of seeming meaninglessness—someone to agree that is so, just so the mourning folks don't think they are crazy.
Unusually enough, Phoebe's funeral wasn't the worst one I ever attended. In fact, if such a thing is possible, the wake of that 16 year old child—victim of a boy she considered a 'friend'--was less troubling than many. Her paternal grandfather took the microphone and invited people to come up and tell “Phoebe stories”. And people did—former teachers, red-eyed friends, members of the family—and the stories somehow took much of the pain and shock and horror of her death out of the room. There was also a screen that was full of slides of her—it was a power point, I think, and in the pictures Phoebe was full of life. Since she had been cremated, there was no coffin to draw attention to the reality of her death. I suppose Ibsen was right, there is no suffering that cannot be borne if we put it in a story and tell the story to each other.
The worst funeral I ever participated in was the service for Joan, a beautiful woman of 40-something in the first parish I served. Joan suffered from bone cancer—not a way I'd pick to die—and she did suffer from it. In the last days even the sheet on her hospital bed brought her pain. I knew dead was near so I visited her every morning for the last week or so. The last morning I broke one of the few rules I have about what I do. I didn't go to the nurses' station to check on her condition but simply walked into her private room. The fact that the door was closed didn't surprise me since Joan had complained about the constant and sometimes disturbing sounds of the wing.
So I walked in to find her naked on her bed, her feet tied together with gauze and her arms straight down at her sides. She was being prepared to go to the morgue in the basement. The nurse who was washing her turned to see me, shocked at first but recognizing me, she simply said, “less than an hour ago. She's finally at peace.”
I had to agree that Joan's face was uncreased by pain for the first time in a year. She looked serene and lovely. Finally at peace, indeed.
Joan's funeral was one of the “mixed funerals” I had at St. James in Charleston. Sometimes the deceased was the Episcopalian and the family were black Baptist or AME or something more fundamentalist than that. Joan had joined the Episcopal Church while in college to escape the harshness of her family's faith. But they insisted that the funeral should be in the funeral home and their 'preacher' would help me. I knew Joan wouldn't have wanted that but I was young them and not bold enough to stand up for the dead against the wishes of the grieving family.
The funeral director was a Baptist but he well understood the Episcopal Church's ways. So, just before the service he closed the coffin and helped two of the women from the church put the pall on. I had been talking with Preacher Jones for 10 minutes before that, agreeing that he could speak for a while and I would do the burial office from the Prayer Book. “And Preacher Jones,” I said in my harshest whisper, “the coffin remains closed....” (I had been to family funerals of some of the other members of St. James and seen how a closed coffin would be opened to let the congregation have one more look at the dead.) Preacher Jones, a retired coal miner with several fingertips missing, hadn't been within spitting distance of any seminary of any kind and didn't know the Episcopal practice any more than he knew how to speak Hindi. I was going to stay in control of the service.
“Yes sir, Father,” he told me, “just the way you want it....”
After the solemn, lovely tones of the liturgy and readings, Preacher Jones got up to begin his sermon. He started out softly, reminding people of 'Otto, the Orkin Man'--a popular ad campaign for a company who specialized in pest control...mostly termites. He was using Paul's image of the earthly body and the heavenly body--'tabernacles' in his King James language. He said that Joan's earthly tabernacle had been ravaged and that the doctors and treatments were like Otto's work on our houses when they were infested by termites. But her heavenly tabernacle would be perfect and in need of no cancer control. It was an interesting metaphor and I was thinking about how that was closer than I could come to describing the bodies we supposedly will have in the Kingdom. I drifted off a moment in the image and was propelled by to full alertness when I heard him say, in one of those low, rolling voices Black preachers are so good at: “I believe there are some here who have not had the privilege of viewing Sister Joan's earthly tabernacle one last time....”
I rose and touched his arm. “Preacher Jones,” I whispered, “don't go there....”
But by that time several people were moving down the aisle toward the coffin. Jumping away from me like a much younger man than he was, he snatched the pall and pulled it from Joan's coffin. The two ladies from St. James practically dived forward to grab it before it hit the floor. I couldn't get to him because was already surrounded by weeping and wailing mourners. The decent good order the BCP had brought to the room was gone, replaced by a frenzy of what posed as grief but seemed to me to be pure dramatics.
The funeral director was pushing forward to try to restore things to some sense of decency but Preacher Jones was pulling on the locked lid, jarring the casket around. Evan, the funeral director, looked at me with horror—he told me later that Joan's funeral convinced him that the Episcopal practice was, after all, the best way. I nodded to him and he opened the casket with the tool he used before Preacher Jones and the surge of people could knock it from its stand.
What happened then was a tempest of despair. One woman was actually keening and a large transvestite (I knew she was because her name was Robert) actually lifted Joan's body up and held her for a while, sobbing all the time. The storm stopped almost as suddenly as it began. Evan straightened Joan's clothing as best he could in a room full of people, quietly closed and secured the lid and with the help of the stricken women from St. James, restored the pall to its place.
Preacher Jones was worn out by then and after getting some “Amens” from the congregation, went back to his seat. I finished the service though tears of rage and failure. I had let Joan down at the end. She would have been horrified at such goings on. And I led her coffin to the waiting hearse, Even apologizing to me each step of the way.
After they shut the door on Joan's coffin, Preacher Jones stretched out his hand to me. “I can't go to the grave,” he said, “I'm sure you can handle it.”
Rather than reject his handshake I took his hand in mine and began to squeeze his finger nubs. He was in his 70's and I was barely 30 and in the best shape of my life. I squeezed until I saw tears in his eyes. Then I whispered, “Preacher Jones, you are one sick son of a bitch”, smiling to beat the band so the people around thought I was being gracious in a terrible situation. I finally released his hand and slapped him on the shoulder in a clerical way, but hard enough to make him stumble a bit.
That was the worse funeral I ever had a part in.
My first funeral was of Miss Bessie. Miss Bessie was 97 and lived with her two sisters, 93 and 87. She had been dying in the same hospital on the same day as the birth of my son. Labor was slow going and so I made several trips back and forth between labor hall and Miss Bessie's room. I had been telling her about what was going on downstairs, how my son was being born. I'm not sure she could hear me but I kept telling her since it was all I could think of to tell anybody at the time.
After my second visit to Miss Bessie, I was sitting in the room with Bern. Things were going nowhere and she was getting impatient. I wasn't sure things could get worse but they did. A nurse stuck her head in the room and said, in a confused and questioning voice, “your father is here?” We knew good and well neither of our fathers were anywhere near and caught the nurses confusion just as a voice said in a stage whisper: “Father in God...”
For reasons beyond all my comprehension, the bishop had decided to make a pastoral call to labor hall!
“Get his ass out of here,” Bern hissed at me, fire in her eyes.
He was apologetic when I steered him out into the hallway, but I don't think he understood why she wasn't grateful he had come. That taught me another rule for priestcraft—never go to the room of a woman in labor unless you're summons. There are places priests should never go....
While Josh was being delivered by C-section, Miss Bessie slipped away though that mysterious door to whatever comes next. Life and death mingled together, mixed up, passing like ships in the corridors of Charleston General Hospital.
Three days later, our son came home and Miss Bessie had her funeral. There was no moaning as she put out to sea. She had lived a great span of years and had only been sick for a week or so at the end. She was another of those skinny, unmarried women who seem to live so long. Might be a cautionary tale in there for women considering marriage.
The family plot was straight up a hill ten miles or so outside of Charleston. The only vehicle that could get there was a four-wheel drive Ford pickup truck. The hearse carried Miss Bessie to the foot of the hill and two strong gravediggers transferred her to the back of the truck. I had intended to go up, but since the funeral director had to by law and the truck would hold only three passengers, I climbed up in the bed of that Ford and committed Miss Betsy to God and the earth. Then off she went, bouncing up and down on a rocky 45 degree angle.
Her sisters and a few others waited in the car while she was put in her grave near her people. One of the sisters, Miss Mable, said, “just two more trips to go....” I knew she meant for her and Miss Dorothy. But I left before either of them died. They were very thin and unmarried.
Once, shortly after we moved to New Haven, Josh and I were going somewhere in the VW bus. New Haven has several large and sprawling cemeteries within the city limits. By chance we passed two of them in a matter of minutes. Josh, barely 5 years old, said, “there sure are a lot of dead people living in New Haven.”
Mouths of babes and all that. I'm pretty agnostic about ghosts and communications with the Great Wherever, but every time I leave a room for a few moments, turning off the light, I say to myself, “Hello, Virgil!” My father was the world's champion at turning off lights. Since our children complain when they are visiting that our house is too dark, I must be channeling Virgil pretty well.
Lots of dead people live most places, it seems to me.
Once, after a funeral when the cremains were interred in St. John's Close, a young funeral director asked me if a person had to be a member to be buried there.
“No,” said knowing we had interred ashes of several folks from the Soup Kitchen because they had no where to rest.
He smiled broadly. “I have these cremains....”
Turns out his funeral home had a contract with the two hospitals in town to cremate unclaimed bodies. But after cremating them, they weren't sure what to do with them and the boxes were taking up most of a cabinet in a storage room.
“Most of them are babies,” he said.
“Babies?” I asked, “people left their babies bodies at the hospital?”
I was initially horrified until he explained that many of them were still births and premature, damaged children. Some people didn't have enough money to pay for burial and others were so upset and confused they simply signed the papers while in shock.
So, that All Saint's Day, at the end of the Eucharist, we took the cremains he had collected over the last few years out to the Close and buried them together. We put the names on the plaque in the church narthex (front hallway of the sanctuary for those who don't speak 'Episcopalian”). One or two were indigent adults but most were, as he told me, babies. Some of them didn't have first names so they were 'Baby Girl Smith' and 'Baby Boy Jones'. One I remember had the remarkable name “Baby Boy Bugalu”. Whenever I looked at the plaque, I always found his name and caressed it with my fingertip.
So a tradition was born. Each All Saint's Day thereafter, ashes with no where to go found a resting place at St. John's. Other funeral directors found out about it and brought their unclaimed ashes as well. That little sacred rectangle of earth became home to the forgotten and left behind of the dead who lived in Waterbury.
I found out most everyone had the same initial reaction to the babies as I had—shock and a bit of anger toward the parents. I spent time, in writing and All Saints' sermons, explaining that we need to try to imagine the anguish people felt at losing a child and how anguished people often make strange decisions out of the fog of grief.
Then a member of the parish came to me and tearfully told me how she had lost a third semester baby while traveling in the south. It had been decades before and she was so drugged up by the hospital staff that it was well on the way home before she thought to ask what happened to the baby. Her husband, stricken and paralyzed with loss, had signed the body over to the hospital to depose of.
“I can only hope she went to some place like St. John's,” the woman told me, “and now I can finally grieve for that child I never knew.”
The second year a couple of people I didn't know showed up for the All Saint's Day interments. They approached me afterward. They both had the same story as the parishioner. In the case of these two they had both been young and unmarried when their babies were born dead. In fact, the two of them had discovered they shared the same secret, since almost no one else knew their stories. They were weeping too, mourning for those children who never lived and they abandoned in death. The service had been a form of absolution for them both and they weren't keeping the secret any more.
“My husband and my two teenagers don't know about what happened,” one of them told me. “Now I can tell them and I can finally be comforted for that awful loss.” That sounded like very 'good news' to me. A Gospel moment in the courtyard of a church.
Marty and Fran came to St. John's one Sunday and never left until they retired to Florida. Marty worked as a civilian for the State Police and Fran was an office worker somewhere. They were great—Marty was a big, grown up kid who looked like the actor Fred Gwinn. Fran was feisty and ironic and funny. They were great fun to have around. They both were in late life second marriages and were always bringing visiting grandchildren to church. One of them had the first name Bradley, so he and I had more than a passing relationship. That I never knew which of them was the 'real' grandparent said a lot about their relationship.
They were two of those people who move to Florida because it is part of the thought that that's what people in Connecticut do when they retire. All their families were in New England, so they came back often, always stopping in for a Sunday 'hit' of St. John's funky parish life and worship. I liked them both immensely. Marty was one of those 'Corvette guys' who never outgrew his love for fast sports cars. He had a gizmo on his Buick or Oldsmobile or whatever it was--'American' for sure—that allowed him to turn on the motor from a distance. He's leave the heater turned on in winter and the AC in summer and when he got to his car after breakfast it was either warm as toast or cool as sea breezes. I always coveted that feature.
On the way back to Florida from one of their swings north to see family, they wrecked and both were killed. Instantly, I pray. The car went through the medium, across 3 lanes of northbound traffic and through the guardrail on the northbound side and into a tree. Perhaps Marty, who was driving, had a heart attack or went to sleep. I can only hope Fran was asleep and didn't realize what was happening until it had happened. And it happened and they both died and the two families wanted a joint funeral at St. John's. It is a huge, Neo-Gothic church, and I had to figure out how to get two coffins in the transepts without blocking the center aisle or the steps to the altar for communion.
And we got it done. Children from each family spoke, we broke the bread and shared the wine and then went on a wondrous ride. Two hearses were necessary since, unlike bicycles, there are no hearses built for two. We buried Marty first, beside his first wife, who died before he met Fran. Then we wound our way down the Naugatuck Valley to Fran's family plot. I thought of them so much as 'together', it was hard for me to imagine them being separated by death and having two different resting places in the rocky, rich soil of Connecticut. But that's the way we did it. One funeral and two different interments. I only hope those two—who seemed so 'right' for each other, can find the other in the General Resurrection. (Though, honestly, I can't say I believe in such a thing....)
Mrs. Carter was from Barbuda, a little island in the Caribbean that, from the stories I've heard about it from her large extended family, is about as isolated and undeveloped as any island in the chain. She and her family have been in Connecticut for many years—all hard working, soft-spoken and physically striking. Her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and assorted other relatives came to church and sat near each other. The kids—boys in suits and girls in dresses with little hats and white gloves (imagine that!) sat through the services without coloring books or electronic gadgets or even stern looks from their parents. Every time someone told me they wanted to come to church but their children would misbehave, I wanted to say, “Consider the Barbudians”.
Once a new seminarian asked me in hushed tones, “why do all those Black people sit together?” She thought it had something to do with unwritten rules about race in the Parish.
“What would you think if 20 or 25 people sat in the same area and all had red hair?” I asked her.
Something came across her face that seemed like enlightenment. “A family,” she said, “...but so many....”
On Mrs. Carter's birthday, there were perhaps 75 or more family members in church with her. I sometimes thought there were more Barbudaians in Waterbury than in Barbuda. And each of them was fiercely committed to her. She was truly the matriarch of that large and handsome clan. Two of her sons and their families were very involved. Between them and the assorted kids, we once turned over the entire service to honor her on some milestone birthday. All the readers, chalicists and acolytes were related to Mrs. Carter on that day.
She was a delightful and sunny person. “Fad-er Bradley”, she would say in her charming accent, “how are you today?” She always brought me something from her trips back to the island. One gift was a huge and perfect conch shell that is still in our back yard. Another time, because she knew I kept bottles of hot sauce around the church for my use, she brought me some hot sauce from her home. “Dis is not like your haht sauce, Fad-er Bradley,” she said, “use jist a drop or two.”
Well, I like hot sauce and thought she underestimated my taste for it. One morning I sprinkled it liberally on my scrambled eggs and spent much of the next hour or so drinking ice water and blowing my nose. I should have never doubted her wisdom.
Wise, that is what she seemed to be. She had worked long and hard for her children—mostly as an aide in a nursing home, I believe—and had found wisdom in her work and her years. Besides her immediate family, there were others she had unofficially adopted. People I knew to be her nieces or cousins all called her 'momma'. And as she lay dying, she waited for one of them to come before opening that mysterious door and passing through. I've never figured out how people know 'to wait', postponing death until some particular person shows up, but I've seen it enough to know it is so.
I visited her often during her last illness. The nursing home where she was wasting away was on my way home, if I went the long way. And I had seen her the afternoon before her death, surrounded, as always, by quiet, loving guardians from her family. It was a constantly changing assortment of people—many of them children and teens—who sat with her daily and, I suspect, around the clock—always with a CD of gospel music playing from the top of a chest of drawers. The morning of her death a daughter-in-law called and asked me to come again. I told her I'd be there in the afternoon but she insisted I come now. The niece she had been waiting on had come—Mrs. Carter never said that she was waiting on that particular relative, being in a semi-coma most of the last week, but her family knew it was the truth. Several of them had told me, “When she comes, momma will leave....”
When I arrived with my communion kit and oil to anoint Mrs. Carter, the family had filled the room and were spilling out into the hallway. It was 8 in the morning and some of the kids there were in school uniforms with back packs. The people parted for me, murmuring thanks and touching me softly. I never quite got used to the profound respect they treated me with and it was only with great urging that I ever got any of them to call me “Jim” instead of “Father Bradley”. I never even suggested it to Mrs. Carter: I was simply 'Fad-er Bradley' to her.
I said the prayers for the dying, noticing that people in the room were holding each other against what was to come, sobbing without sound, faces wet with tears. Then I realized I only had a dozen or so little wafers for communion. Since there was no room for me to move around, I passed the elements and told them to share. It was like loaves and fishes in Mrs. Carter's circle of love and the last person got as much bread to dip in the wine as the first. An hour or so later, she died.
Her funeral was one of the most elegant and lovely services I've ever known. It was a cold, cold day with spitting snow but when we got to the cemetery, everyone—dressed uniformly in black—stayed until the casket was lowered and the grave was completely full. At first family members tossed in handfuls of dirt and the little girls dropped flowers in the gaping hole. But finally an end loader came and finished the job. The 150 or so people didn't seem willing to leave even then, touching and whispering, telling stories of Mrs. Carter, until they were chilled to the bone.
Having seen her finally buried, the grief lifted for the meal—an amazing collection of island dishes, the next better and more delicately seasoned than the one before. It was through Mrs. Carter and a reception after the funeral of one of her relatives that I first tasted goat. The thought was somehow revolting to me, but it was so well prepared that I loved it. I wouldn't dare try to cook goat though.
Several of her grandchildren were in the Chorister Academy at St. John's and I would talk to them before rehearsal. After her death, they told such sweet stories about Mrs. Carter. One of them, tall and beautiful, said, with whimsy instead of sadness, “I love her more each passing day.” I found that remarkable coming from a 13 year old. And I knew it was true.
Gravesides are the last place people still have some connection to the one who has died. Most people walk away with the casket still above ground. Somehow the practice of filling in the grave seems a better final parting—not leaving such intimacy to strangers. It is at gravesides that the stark finality of death becomes finally undeniable. I remember helping fill the grave of my dear priest friend, Peter. He was deeply involved in environmental ministry and was a long time chaplain at a exclusive private school. One way or another—as seminarian, part-time assistant, interim rector, assisting priest—Peter's altar had almost always been at St. John's. His wife and daughter were wonderful parts of the parish family and just before I retired, I baptized Peter's grandson. When his parents and godparents presented him and said, “we present Peter to receive the sacrament of baptism”, I nearly wept in joy and in the memory of my friend. I remembered much, in that moment, about Peter's life, but I also remember softly dropping evergreen boughs on his casket and then helping shovel in the dirt. Something healing in being part of that last gift to him.
Once, in one of the first few funerals I was part of at St. James in Charleston, Evan, the Baptist funeral director handed me a handful of rose petals. He intended me to scatter them on the casket at the words of committal.
“What's this?” I whispered, confused.
“For the casket,” he whispered back, confused himself by that point.
“I want dirt,” I told him.
“Dirt?” he asked, a little aghast.
“Dirt,” I repeated and he found me some.
It is sometimes remarkable to me that Christians have developed funeral practices that seek the lessen the finality of death when it is the finality itself that we need desperately to face head on to begin to heal.
When you have children, they are always babies in your heart. My children are both in their 30's. Josh has three children of his own and is a lawyer. Mimi works in Development for the American Ballet Theatre and is a woman. Mimi is a woman—graceful and lovely beyond her knowing...but she and the big-shot lawyer are still small children to me. And perhaps the hardest death to bear is the death of a child.
I'm making a list and checking it twice about things I want to check out when and if I get to the Kingdom of Heaven. I want to have a sit down with Yahweh and ask the Great God Almighty to clear up a few things I think were left hanging in Creation. At the top of the list is the question about dead babies.
Dead babies are hideous, awful, unspeakable, unfair, nasty, brutish and ugly. There should have been a default built into the system that never let children die before their parents. Something kinder was called for. Bern once gave me a pen and ink drawing that was of seven tombstones. Each had the names and dates on them. On either end of the stones are the parents. In between are five children. You notice, looking at the picture, that the parents lived to ripe old ages and all the children died in the first three years of life. That is a profoundly painful work of art. If I could, I'd take that with me through the mysterious door for my sit down with Yahweh. “What the hell was this about?” I'd ask God, and wait as long as necessary (it being eternity and all) for an answer.
There was a wonderful young couple at St. John's—let's call them Adam and Eve—who became members while engaged, got married there, remained very active and joyfully, and a year or so after their marriage, 'got pregnant'. It was something they'd longed for, hoped for, waited for. They were transformed by the promise of it all. They turned a room into a nursery and started painting, picked out names, began buying fuzzy toys (Eve) and sports equipment (Adam) for their coming child.
But when Eve went for her seven-month checkup, their world turned upside down and inside out.
The doctor seemed anxious during the examination. His tension was contagious: Adam and Eve caught it in about 10 seconds.
He asked Eve if she'd been spotting. Only a little, she told him, just from time to time.
Pain, he asked, had she had any pain? Indigestion for a week or so, she answered, her heart clutching into a fist.
No heart beat. That was the issue, the problem, the reason for his questions and the death of joy for Adam and Eve.
Their baby was dead. Just like that, their world went from joy and light to the dark night of the soul. And, for medical reasons I do not comprehend, what Eve had to do was carry the baby to term and deliver it, dead as a doornail. She carried the damaged fetus two more months and gave birth to Death.
I'll leave all the excruciating ironies of that for you to sort through—I'm waiting until I get to ask God about it.
So, Adam and Eve lived their lives as if in a web of sorrow. They went to work. They prepared and ate meals. They tried to behave normally in an insane situation. And finally, mercifully, Eve went into labor and delivered her dead child after 10 hours of pain that did not lead to life.
I was there near the end (summons, not on my own). I waited with family from both sides. All this happened in a 'birthing room' of a major hospital. On the door of the room, the staff had put a painting of a black rose. The other doors had blue roses or pink roses on them. In a place of such expectation and possibility, there was this little island of pain—cold, damning pain.
A black rose.
In that 'birthing room', we took turns holding that dead baby—so perfect in every way except she could not, would not ever breathe or laugh or cry or live. And I baptized her, not even sure what I was doing theologically, not caring really, knowing only that it gave some tiny sliver of comfort to people as beaten down, exhausted and condemned to pain as anyone could be. I spoke her name—a name she would never hear or be known by or have nicknames derived from. And I know, from having been through it with both of my wife's pregnancies, what Adam and Eve did, before those horrendous weeks when she found out she was incubating death. They had played out their baby's life a thousand times. They had, in their minds, taken her to the baby-sitter and picked her up, listened and watched for her first words and steps. They had lived with her, through their imaginations—seen her through childhood diseases, off to school and even as the woman she would become giving them grandchildren. That's what expectant parents do—live out their child's life in their hearts, wondering how she'll react to Christmas, if she'll like cats or dogs, what her voice will sound like, if she'll be musical. There is seemingly no limit to the human mind's ability to project life into the future when a baby is coming.
(A related aside: no one I know—even me—takes miscarriages seriously enough. Couples who suffer miscarriages have done the same imaginative living out of their child's life as someone who gives birth to a dead baby. And yet I've never heard any clergy talk about the two in the same way or with the same seriousness. Since miscarriages are usually the result of injury to the mother or a damaged fetus, people don't seem to assume it was a 'baby'. But I believe the pain is the same as losing a child at birth or afterward. Hideous pain it must be. God better be reading up on what to tell me when I ask about all this....)
I was with Adam and Eve for several hours between the baptism and the funeral. I mostly said nothing and did nothing. There was nothing to say and even less to do. All that mattered was being there—and even that only mattered tangentially.
So the day came. The service at the church was solemn and tearful. The long ride to a rural cemetery seemed to be without end. And as we stood in the snow beside that tiny little coffin, the temperature was in the teens and the wind-chill near zero. A bitter day for a bitter task.
It was then that I noticed the spray of flowers on the coffin. They were roses and baby-breath—red roses instead of black and the breath that baby would never draw. There was a ribbon amid the flowers that said: OUR LITTLE ANGLE.
The florist must have been dyslexic and reversed the E and L so that the message seemed to refer to a small geometrical shape rather than a celestial being. As I prayed the prayers at the grave, I prayed as well that I was the only one who had noticed the 'angle' on the ribbon. But as the short, freezing service drew to an end, I noticed Adam shaking his head and biting his lip. Then he nudged Eve with his elbow through their winter coats and nodded to the coffin. She saw it, realized what it meant and I committed their child to the earth while they choked back laughter.
A little later, at a relative's house near the cemetery, Adam and Eve and I drank alcohol and laughed out loud. They hadn't laughed since that awful day two months ago. They had gone through the motions of life, completed tasks, prepared and half-eaten dinners, laid down to sleep with Death in Eve's belly—but they hadn't laughed, they told me, not once, until then.
Laughter at a transposed 'e' and 'l' gave them back a bit of their lives. They went on. Moved to another state. Had a baby. They called me from a far-away hospital to tell me about Tilitha, their wonderous child. I noted without mentioning it that they had named her what Jesus called the little girl he raised from death. “Tilitha cum”, he said, and the dead lived. I can only imagine that was what they experienced—resurrection from the death of their baby.
Every week or so I drive my dog to the oldest cemetery in Cheshire and walk him like I walked the dog before him. There is a section of the graveyard I call 'the Peanut Gallery' because only children are buried there. Often, around the birth days on the stones and around holidays, I'll discover little gifts on those tiny graves. I've walked that path for almost two decades now. I've seen fresh graves, yet without a stone and the toys left on the just turned earth. Through the seasons I've seen turkeys at Thanksgiving, Jack-o-lanterns near Halloween, Christmas symbols, little crosses of palms and Easter eggs on those graves. I've seen it all. And I've seen, over the years, the Barbie doll in disarray, the tiny trucks rusting, the mouldering stuff animals. People do tend to get on with life. My favorite grave is of a teenage girl. (Is having a 'favorite grave' too macabre?) Her name matters not. Names, as important as they are, pale in the cosmic stillness of death. But on her gravestone is says this:
Caring, kind and fiercely free,
She moves on impatiently.
I especially fond of the present tense of “moves”. I'm not at all sure what I think about the mysterious door we all approach, but I'm glad they didn't put 'moved on'. It leaves the whole question of death up in the air a bit—dynamic and full of possibilities.
And I think the words are a wonderful way to say good-bye to a dead daughter. I'm half in love with that 16 year old. She'd be nearing 40 now on this side of the Door. Who know where she moves on the other side.
Fred, an intern who will be a wonderful priest, and I did the weirdest thing I remember doing in a long time just a few months before I retired. “Uncle Jimmy” had died. I was out of town and wasn't at his deathbed but I knew his nephew, a gracious, generous man who lives on the Jersey Shore, had wanted me to be sure to give his 'uncle', who, in fact, was more like his father than his uncle, last rites.
Jimmy was this tiny little man who had a girlfriend who was in a nursing home. He went to see her every day on the bus and then took the bus back to town and stopped by St. John's to sit in the nave and pray. Then he'd go to the Elk's Club and have a nip or two before going home. And once a month he'd stop by the church office and write a check for his 'dues'. Lots of the older folks, mostly union members when the brass mills were working, called their contributions, 'dues'. I'd catch him in the church from time to time and give him communion. Wade, his nephew, an organist at his church in New Jersey, was glad to know all that.
Since I needed to anoint Jimmy, Fred and I went across the street to the funeral home and one of the funeral directors let us in to the embalming room where Jimmy was laid out. There was a woman there too, large, quite young, I thought, and, like Jimmy, covered by a sheet with her head on a little notched support. So I anointed Jimmy, touching his room temperature forehead and asked God to see him through the door into whatever comes next.
When I told Wade about that, apologizing for not having done it before Jimmy died, he simply smiled and thanked me. How gracious people are—Jimmy dead and Wade living.
For the living and the dead, there might just be life after funerals after all.