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Reflections on a Funeral
September 26, 2005
Yesterday afternoon I attended the funeral of my friend Mike (context here and here). It was quite a nice funeral, as these things go, and was more a celebration of his life than a time of mourning for his death. There were hundreds of people in attendance, enough that my friend and I, and many other people, were forced to stand throughout. It was also ridiculously hot for an late-September funeral in Canada. As always, the funeral gave me opportunity to reflect on a few things and I thought I’d share some of those today.
Grief turns the toughest into poets. Mike’s brothers, one of whom is older than him and the other younger, did a speech of sorts. They recounted memories from their childhood, described the evolution of the patented “banana slice” that plagued Mike’s golf game, laughed at his “anal retentiveness” (as they described it) and remembered his ability to make their mother laugh when she was supposed to be angry. The speech culminated in a poem the older brother had written following Mike’s death. While I do not remember the poem, it struck me how poetry seems fitting during the emotional highs and lows of life. Mike’s brother did not look like the type who would usually sit down to pen a poem, yet here he was, reading it unashamedly (or nearly unashamedly) in front of hundreds of people. I have often seen the same at weddings or following the birth of children. Somehow poetry expresses what prose cannot seem to. I guess that is why David and the other Psalmists decided to use poetry to express such depths of joy, pain, sorrow and penitence. I have not written poetry for many years, and I think those who read my early efforts would agree that this is a good thing.
I miss liturgy. It’s breaking news and you heard it here first. I miss litury. I don’t miss candles and bowing to crosses, but I do miss some of the formality of a more structured service. The funeral was held in an Anglican church that I do not believe was “high” Anglican. But I appreciated several elements of the service. I enjoyed praying the Lord’s Prayer together. Granted most of the people in the audience were probably unbelievers (and many were probably Catholic as there was a whole lot of “crossing” going on), but I do enjoy praying together. I also enjoyed reciting the Twenty-third Psalm in unison. And finally, I enjoyed the written liturgy the priest read to commend Mike’s soul to God. I have often expressed my belief that simply because words are written down and are not my own, they are no less pleasing to God, and I feel that proved true at the funeral.
I miss the “set apartness” of the clergy. I grew up in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. While neither of these traditions had any sort of a priesthood, they did believe in a “set apartness” of the pastor that is not present in most evangelical churches. Evangelical pastors often seem to feel that they need to be the most casual and the most irreverent if they are to model informality and authenticity to their congregations (and in saying this I do not mean to indict my own pastors). While I have no desire to create a priestly caste, I do appreciate the dignity of clergy that are set apart. Somehow this just seems to be an external indicator that the pastor takes his roles and responsibilities seriously and a reminder to the people that he has been called to fill a special role.
I do not know Anglican etiquette. The priest would finish reading the Bible or praying and would say some words of conclusion and just about everyone else in the service knew what to say back to him. I did not. It occurs to me that the last time I sat through an Anglican service was many, many years ago - probably following the death of my great uncle who was an Anglican priest (and, according to all the evidence, a life-long unbeliever). So I have never had opportunity to learn the proper conduct in that denomination. Can someone fill me in?
My life will be a failure if at my funeral people only remember how nice I was. I’m guessing that when the disciples gathered after Jesus’ death they did not sit and recount all the nice things He did. And when the early church remembered Paul, I doubt they remembered the times he had said nice things and played with their children. Of course there is nothing wrong with being nice. But that is not how I want to be remembered. Nor do I want to be remembered primarily as a good husband or good father. Mike was a nice guy. He was friendly, usually happy and was generally willing to help others. He was a good husband and a good father. But conspicuously absent from memories of Mike was any mention of his love for God. If my life does not display a deep, abiding love for God, a love so integral to my life that all who know me can’t help but notice it, I’ll consider my life a great failure. I don’t want to be remembered as a nice guy. I want to be remembered as a godly guy.
And finally, cremation is a difficult concept to explain to a five-year old. My son wanted to know what they did with the body. I told him the body had been cremated. He asked what “cremated” meant and I decided I would give the default parental response of, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” I’m not so sure that it would be useful for a child of his age to think about a body being burned to ashes. That is probably beyond what a five-year old mind can deal with.
So that is it. Mike has been laid to rest. I continue to pray that God would not allow me any rest as long as there are other Mikes around me.