We’ve had a run of grey blustery days in my part of the world; the kind that make you want to curl up inside by a fireplace. Today, heavy rain was added to the wind and cold. At the point when it was pouring down the hardest, I was standing with a family at a cemetery. The gentleman who had died did not want a formal service and the family abided by that wish, but they needed to say goodbye and to gather and hold one another up in their shared grief. The graveside service was their compromise between a memorial service and doing nothing at all.
I didn’t know John, the gentleman whose life we were honoring. I may have met him in the early days of my ministry with my present congregation, perhaps on a Christmas Eve. His partner Lydia and their daughter were regular church attenders at the time, but not as much in recent years. John didn’t object to the church and, as far as I know, had no gripes with God. He just wasn’t into weekly worship. He was a hardworking man who became ill a few years ago with a chronic degenerative disease he knew would take his life. Before his condition became such that he could no longer communicate, he made sure his family understood his wishes. He did not want a funeral.
I often wonder why people are so adamant about this request. I’ve rarely come across someone who says, “Well, have a service or don’t have one, I don’t care either way.” Folks tend to assume there will be something to mark their passing, something in sync with their life and beliefs. Others, like John, vehemently insist that there be no gathering at the church followed by coffee, tea, and tiny sandwiches. Why, I wonder? Is it a discomfort with the idea of being the central character in the funeral drama? Some extreme introverts might be uncomfortable with such attention, despite the fact that they would be present only in spirit and not in body.
I suspect that in John’s case it was his attempt to alleviate the difficulty he knew his family would experience upon his dying. Eliminating the funeral would mean one less thing for them to endure while they grieve. The problem with this notion, in my view, is that by not having a gathering of some sort, there is no place to bring together all the condolences, hugs, and concerns that friends want to share with the family. The same people who would have gathered together for a celebration of life, find another way to show their compassion. It’s what people do.
In other words, it becomes a choice. You can either endure an afternoon of hugs and stories over tea in a church hall, or you can answer your phone and open your door to all those same people, one or two at a time, over the course of several weeks. People want to show that they care.
While I can’t say with certainty what John’s motive was for refusing a worship service, I believe he was trying to do right by Lydia. He was trying to make an unbearably difficult time just a bit easier for her. Unfortunately, he didn’t know that she and the rest of the family needed a time to say goodbye, a time to hear a word of hope from scripture. All those Sunday mornings when he had the house to himself and Lydia was at church, she was hearing about the hope of our faith and the promise of God made real in Jesus…the promise that “in life, in death, and in life beyond death, we are not alone. God is with us.”* In the face of her loss, Lydia needed to hear that promise again.
The compromise that seemed amenable to the family was a graveside service with scripture readings, prayers, and words of committal.
So there we were. In the pouring rain. We waited in our cars for awhile, hoping it would let up a bit, but in the end, Lydia knocked on my window and said simply, “Let’s go.” We engaged our rain gear, hoods, and umbrellas as we gathered around the gravesite. The eldest son gently carried a velveteen bag holding the urn with his father’s ashes. The bag was soaked through as I began with scripture sentences and a prayer that only I could hear, despite my attempt to project my voice. The rain was so heavy the umbrellas sounded a cacophony of protest at the utter sadness surrounding this small congregation.
We huddled in closer for a reading of the 23rd Psalm, the committal, and closing blessing. The grandchildren placed beautiful, but drenched roses, next to the urn as tissues were soaked with tears and raindrops.
On the way back to our vehicles, a friend of the family stepped in beside me and said, “Rotten day for this.” “Yes,” I said. Then he replied, “But then, I suppose it’s never a good day when you’re out here.” And he nodded before moving ahead quickly to get out of the rain. I got into my car and sat for a few minutes, thinking about what he had said. He’s right in one respect. On the day when death feels so final, when you gather and commit your beloved into God’s care and keeping…that day is unbearably hard, no matter the weather.
There is something raw, exposed, and vulnerable about cemeteries. They can be dreadfully hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. Some have a bit of tree shelter, but others do not. Either way, the desolation can be as wide as the sky. If I stand long enough in a cemetery, I can almost see the people who over the years have gathered there, asking God for peace for themselves and for their lost loved ones. I imagine them holding one another up in the depth of their pain. There is sacredness in all that raw grief.
But the cemetery isn’t always a dreadful place to be – it can also be a place of profound beauty. The tombstones tell stories of the people memorialized there. There is artistry in some of the stonework, especially in the older areas of the cemetery. It’s a place where, in a small way, for a short time, you can look at a stone and say “This person lived and died and mattered.”
So while the day of the committal was cold and harsh, there will come another day, perhaps a sunny one in Spring, when birds are singing, all is green, and hints of new life are everywhere. Perhaps on that day, the family will return to bring flowers not weighed down by raindrops. I hope they can linger, share stories of better times, and recall the shortest committal service ever, held on a cold rainy day in October.
I hope it will be a fine day for them, a day to remember a cherished loved one, a day to be drenched in the hope of our faith.
*from “A New Creed” in Voices United, United Church Publishing House, 1996.
(Names of the individuals in the article have been changed for privacy)