Sunday, April 10, 2011

memorial homily

I was asked last week to officiate at the memorial service of a friend of the congregation where I'm interning. while I've done several funerals and memorials in the past, this was a hard 1 because it's the 1st where I didn't know the person. fortunately, her widower had written up a 3-page biography which he gave me at our meeting midweek to discuss arrangements. from that and our discussion I felt informed enough to write the homily below. I've redacted names for their privacy and because I've always wanted to be a victorian period writer.

"It’s a cliché to say that death comes for us all. But we often say that. We personify the unknown because it is unknown and to say of something as final as death that it as if it stalked us and hunted us down, as if otherwise we would live forever, is an effective way of making the grief we feel when others die more palatable.

"But that it’s a finality we all face is true nonetheless. We all die. That’s the thing about life; not one of us makes it out alive. If you’re familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of our reactions to grief then you know we experience bargaining, denial, anger, and finally acceptance. It seems acceptance is always the longest in coming and that’s probably because what we must finally accept is not only the deaths of our loved ones but the death of ourselves. From our earliest experiences, as babies watching our parents from the highchair, as preteens watching other people drive, as adult workers learning our jobs from someone else, we know that what we do is based in large part on what other people do. Our lives are intimately tied up in others, for better and for worse.

"When others die we’re tempted to think it’s for the worse. Someone we love, we’re accustomed to seeing or talking with regularly, someone whose face or voice or touch has become a given in our lives is gone now. The chair she sat in is empty. We grieve that emptiness. We will never get her back. It’s hard, grieving. It should be. Nothing’s changed and everything’s changed. Nothing will be the same and everything is all too familiar.

"If we’re fortunate, although we do finally face death alone, we don’t face life alone, and life is scarier. After all, we don’t know anything about death—it’s the last great unknown territory and it’s that very ambiguity that powers both our grief and our acceptance—but we know everything there is to know about being alive and what we know should scare the pants off us. Surviving is easy—breathe in, breathe out—but living is difficult.

"If we’re fortunate we collect companions to deal with this frightening life with us. We get them from multiple places—places as unlikely as Granite Falls or Willmar or Fremont, Nebraska, or a tent in Montana; places a little more likely like Hamline University, a water-skiing school in Nassau or miles above the earth aboard Northwest Orient airplanes; and places as life-altering for the individual as a German Army base in Bavaria or life-altering for others as The Open School in St. Paul. Take a moment to look around you. The results of such a collection can be seen here today.

"If it’s true that every person’s death diminishes us, then the opposite must be equally true: that every life expands us. It’s natural for an animal, when it’s hurt, to withdraw from others, to curl in on itself. If there is something that separates us from other animals, it’s this: That we gather together in painful times.

"We gather together to share grief. We gather together to pass love. We gather together to look into one another’s eyes and hug one another’s shoulders. We gather together to hold one another up. We gather together to mourn and cry. We gather together to celebrate life.

"H___ told me V___ liked to listen. She was a quiet, intense listener to other people. She was a born hostess, loving to cook decadent, complicated food for other people. She was a passionate teacher, and as with almost every teacher she couldn’t know all the lives she touched, lives she changed, lives she helped find meaning. In our meeting planning this memorial her son D___ said, offhandedly, 'She cooked up a good life for us.' We should all hope to have such a thing said of us after we die.

"In lieu of a spoken prayer I’ll ask you to take the hands of the people on either side of you. Feel the warmth of each other’s hands, the coolness of some, the moistness of some hands, the crisp dryness of others. Concentrate for a moment and you’ll find yourself feeling the insistent thrum of other peoples’ heartbeats. Our lives are as fleeting and as real as that sensation. We’re each allotted exactly the same amount of time: a lifetime. No more, no less. Enjoy it, it fades all too fast."

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