Expected Losses

I’ve been serving my little church for going on two years now, and one of the things I expected was to do a lot of funerals. After all, 60% of the members on the rolls were over 65 years old, and quite a few of them older than that. (I regularly visit with several folks in their 90’s and also a lady who is 101!!) But none of the people I began with have died.

Now I have done three funerals. One was for the stepfather of a 40ish mom in my congregation. I met him in the hospital and later visited several times while the family was keeping vigil beside his bed in the Critical Care Unit. He had a beautiful and much-loved yellow Lab, and when they knew they were going to withdraw life support, they brought the dog in to be with him the night before. It was my first funeral, and it was a beautiful experience. The two families of this couple who had married at mid-life came together despite all the old hurts, and all of the eight children from the two previous marriages were a family together in a way they had never been before. I read the end of Deuteronomy and reflected that for their father, the sight of all his children would have been much like Moses’ view of the Promised Land.

The second funeral was a last-minute thing. A dear lady on the Missions Committee mentioned at a Wednesday night meeting that her uncle was being buried the next morning, and there was no one to lead a service. He was receiving a pauper’s burial, paid for by the city. His family had lost track of him for many years, and only recently had he returned home. They didn’t know where he was until he was dying in the hospital. That was all so sad; I offered to come and be with them and give him a funeral. The next morning we met at the cemetery. My parishioner’s aunts, in their 90’s, were there, frail and shocked; the brother they had counted as lost had returned to their lives only to be lost once and for all, with no chance to mend anything. I had written a very simple service–the city-hired funeral home would only allow us a brief time. The most striking moment came when I invited anyone who wished to say with me the words of the 23rd Psalm. All the older folks spoke it with me, while the young ones did not know it. I will never forget the tiny little aunts saying those old, familiar words with tears on their soft, powdered cheeks.

The third funeral came during my vacation last summer. I got a call from a member of our Ladies’ Guild, a delightful gal who never comes to worship services (“The hymns always make me cry,” she says.), but who is utterly faithful to the Guild. I had been visiting her in both hospital and rehab center after some foot surgery and discovered that her husband was hospitalized, too. I asked each time if I could visit him, and every time she said no, he was a little grumpy, maybe some other time. And so the call came on a Wednesday night, as I sat relaxing with my children, that her husband had died. Would I do the funeral in ten days time, on Saturday morning? Now my first vacation had primarily been spent nursing #1 Son through jaw surgery, and my husband and I had only planned two nights away during the four weeks of vacation. And you might be able to guess that they came on that very weekend.

This was the first funeral I would do that would involve more than one family from the church. The other connections were much more marginal. This one would show people how I ministered at the time of death. And so I did it. (And we changed our vacation plans.)

It went very well; the feedback was positive. (“I might even let you do mine,” said one old fellow.) At the reception following the service, the man’s son came to me and said, “I think you did a good job capturing what my dad was all about. Some people thought he was an atheist–” And I’m thinking, that would have been some useful information to have ahead of time!!!

No funerals on this vacation. And in fact none for a year. It seems odd. (See statistics above.) I expected losses, and I expected them before I felt attached to anyone in the congregation. Now that I am attached to many of them, it will be harder when the time comes.

It will be unexpected, even if it isn’t, really.