As a pastor, I get to be part of some of the intimate and significant times in peoples’ lives. Baptisms, when the family comes together with the church to welcome someone into the communion of saints, are always a joy. Weddings, when two people commit to share a life of love and companionship with one another reflecting the love of Christ in their love for one another, can be fun as long as the extended family gets along reasonably well and no one gets too drunk.
The thing is, though, baptisms and weddings, while they certainly can be emotional times, are not usually events during which people completely let their guard down. Funerals, however, can be a different story. Whether the death is a sudden surprise, or has been expected (and sometimes hoped for), coming to grips with the finality of death can be surprisingly disorienting.
I’ve had the privilege of being with all different kinds of people in the aftermath of a death, and I’ve noticed a difference between those who are active members of a church community and those who aren’t. The difference is in how different people deal with death. Those who are active in a faith community are certainly distraught, but in the midst of their grief, they seem to have a solid foundation on which to spiritually stand. Those who are not active in a congregation (including those who are members, but aren’t around very often) tend to spiritually flail a lot more. Their reaction to the death makes me think of our natural reaction to an earthquake, when that which we relied on to be solid is no longer reliable.
This lack of stability and foundation, and perhaps an unnatural sterilization of the dying process is, I believe, where so many new dying and funeral traditions originate. But there is honor and dignity and foundation and stability in those ‘tried-and-true’ practices. For instance, providing hospice care for a dying person and their family can be a wonderful thing. To have someone available who is familiar with the physiological and psychological and emotional and spiritual things folks might go through can be an amazing gift.
However, sometimes even hospice doesn’t live up to its good reputation. Once, one of the saints of the church was dying, and the family invited hospice to be with him and them. However, in this instance, hospice was not very attentive, not very available, and not very helpful. As disheartening as this might be, I believe it was a gift to the family. They were required to tend more closely to their husband/father/grandfather’s physical needs, which gave them the opportunity to be family together in ways they might not have been able to if the ‘hired help’ was doing those jobs.
What I saw through the days while they waited for his last breath is what I picture from the ‘olden days’. In one room there was what used to be known as the death bed, where the dying person lay, awake and lucid at first, but sleeping more and more as the days went on. In the other rooms of the home, the family sat around doing a number of different things. They worried about their husband/(grand)father; they talked about the past; they talked about the upcoming funeral; they talked about their life; they watched television and checked in at work; they ate together, and welcomed friends into the space for visits. It was a transitional space between the death room and the world all around that just kept on going. They made sure someone was always with him to keep him company, so he was not alone in this world when the time came to be welcomed in to the heavenly kingdom.
There were days of what used to be known as death watch, where time slowed or stood still and nothing else was as important as being together. Then, when he died, preparing for the funeral was more important than the rest of life. We gathered for the funeral, proclaimed to one another the grace of God, laid his body to rest, and life for the family began to start again.
They are certainly sad; they continue to grieve; but they’ve never ‘flailed’ spiritually because of the solid foundation of faith that each of them, and they together, have grown in to since they were born.
There’s nothing wrong with new traditions ~ but sometimes, what made sense hundreds of years ago might make sense today as well.