How did I end up attending a funeral at the end of my retreat? Well, when I arrived on Thursday, the Franciscan brothers told me that a beloved member of the community, a man who had worshipped regularly at the friary with his wife for many years, had just died, and the funeral was going to be on Saturday at the friary, the last day of my retreat. They invited me to come, and I thought, “Do I really want to go to a funeral on my retreat?” After all, the idea of a retreat is to get away from it all, isn’t it?
I have been to a lot of funerals in my life, almost all of them for relatives. Some of those relatives were very close to me, and some a little less close. But nevertheless, I was intimately involved as a griever from the age of nine on. And as an adult, I have also been at funerals for church members whom I barely knew, but I knew those who mourned quite well, and so I still was involved.
I could not understand why I would attend the funeral of someone I had never met. I have done this as a seminarian, but I was “working” that funeral, and that is a different matter. I was involved intimately because I was working with the grieving family members of the deceased. Likewise, as an occasional hospital chaplain, I am often, often called to the room of someone who has just died or is about to die to minister to all who are gathered in the room. I am intimately–and frequently–acquainted with grief. Grief was the last thing I wanted to be around.
So my first reaction to the invitation was “No way.” I intended to hide away when mourners arrived. But the brothers kept saying, “You should come! You’re a part of the community!”
So… in the end… I did go to a funeral. I was reading outside under a tree when mourners began to arrive, and I scurried away to give them some privacy. But one of the brothers kept beckoning to me, so I thought, “Okay. Let’s see what this beckoning is about.” Maybe, after all, it was God beckoning.
The funeral was in the chapel of the friary, and I came down the stairs into the hallway outside the chapel around 10 minutes before to find family milling about, unwilling to step inside the chapel. I know that feeling well.
It was easy to identify the widow, whom I knew by name because the brothers had talked about her and her husband at dinner the previous two nights. So I greeted her by name and said I was on retreat and was there to pay my respects. She very graciously encouraged me to attend. Then we went in, and the family’s grief opened up.
It was odd for me. I felt like an observer. And in fact, as clinical as this might sound to non-clergypeople, I was observing the funeral from a professional point of view. I wasn’t a mourner, I wasn’t a chaplain, I wasn’t a liturgical servant; I was just watching and praying. I did feel a sympathetic pang when the tears began to flow, but I also felt amazingly peaceful.
And here’s why: Christian funeral prayer language is what we church insiders call “Easter” language. That is because Christians believe that we are resurrected and born into a new life when we die, like Jesus Christ. We are well aware that other people think this is a fantasy, a pipe dream we have concocted to cope with the fact of death, but the idea of resurrection and new life in death is quite real for (most) Christians.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to grasp and internalize in the midst of this earthly entanglement. We can “know” it on a certain level but maybe not feel very sure about it. However, on that day, as I looked at the beautiful splashes of floral arrangements at the altar, and as I listened to the Easter language of the funeral service, I was glad I was there, because I felt myself slip very peacefully into the promises of our faith. These promises cannot be destroyed by war or famine or disease or injustice or poverty–or automobile accidents such as the one that led to this particular man’s demise. Ironically, these evils simply hasten the promises of Christianity.
And yet, this truth doesn’t make me want to rush to death. On the contrary, despite my wish to be ever more closely connected to God, I find so much evidence of that connection here in this mundane life on Earth: in the widow who invites a stranger to her husband’s funeral; in the sharing of a meal with mourners; in the beckoning arm of the brother who said, “You should come. You should come to the funeral.”