After a couple meetings, we held the memorial yesterday in the son's apartment. The two families--a first wife and her adule children, and a second and her teenage children--came together for the first time in a decade and a half to mourn the death and celebrate the life of a man none of them knew what had become of.
I'm not only a minister but also a member of several online homeless and vagabond Facebook groups. I put to their members what they, as people for whom exactly this situation might happen, thought I should tell the families. Their responses, numbering a couple hundred, inform the following eulogy.
We don’t know what the last hours or days or even years of Jonathon’s life was like. We do know some things. That he had multiple health problems, including heart and lung issues, that he was addicted, at least for a while, to alcohol, that he was fending for himself in a losing battle against the entropy all of us are heir to, to the extent that this man, a mere 49 years old, could be discovered dead and that it could be considered a natural death. It is fitting that the person who discovered Jonathon’s body was also probably homeless. In the final analysis, each of us has only each other.
It’s easy to mistake pride for self-sufficiency. As most of you are aware, I was myself homeless for several years, so I feel comfortable telling you that while it might be tempting to think of Jonathon’s last years in terms of unremitting pain, depression, and desperation, that isn’t all there was to it. Those elements were there, certainly, but just like we can’t subsist entirely on a diet of charred toast, his life was undoubtedly leavened by the sweetness of life. Gratitude at the kiss of warm sunlight on his face when he least expected it. Appreciation at the gifts of money and food and shelter offered him. Warmth in his belly at the taste of liquor or cigarettes, the delicious succulence of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The sweet release of lying down to rest, the wonder of dreams. He felt love, perhaps a little ashamed at the families he left behind, but also perhaps relief in, in his mind, rescuing them from the burden of his deterioration.
Enough with idle speculation. What we do know is this: he was ill his last years, he lived on the streets here and maybe spent time in shelters, he died from the combination of his diseases and exposure, and he did not reach out to anyone here for help. Those are hard, uncomfortable truths. Perhaps they should be. Not that anyone should feel bad at not having provided help or feel anger with Jonathon because he didn’t ask for it. They’re hard because people, like life itself, are complicated. For whatever reasons, to conquer whatever demons, Jonathon made the decisions he did and accepting them and him is the final dignity we can give him.
Loving him in death is the best we can hope for. Or, if not love, acceptance of the way he chose to live his last years. We are all each other has got, and trying to change anyone, in death as in life, only leads to frustration. Jonathon’s life and death, for all the ways it hurts us, has dignity to it, as all life has dignity. We are born, we live, and we die. A single known sandwiched between two portals to the unknown. Buddhists tell the story that the earth is made up of ocean and a single ring floats on it. Every thousand years an ancient tortoise crawls from the bottom mud and rises achingly for a breath of fresh air. He breaks free of his resting place, journeys to where the sky can be seen, gulps a single lungful of air, and descends rest again in the mud. They say as often as that tortoise crests the surface with his head in that ring during each thousand year event, just as often are we born. To be born is rare and lucky. It must be honored. Jonathon’s life was no more or less dignified than any of ours. You are lucky to have known him, to have loved him.
In my faith there’s a ritual we sometimes perform at the death of a member of our community. Will you gather in a ring and take hold of the hand of the persons next to you. We sing the words but since you don't know the tune, we'll just say them together. Please repeat after me: “Spirit of Life, come unto me. Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea; move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close, wings set me free. Spirit of Life, come to me. Come to me.”
[Prayer] God of tears and the mysterious silence, God of suffering and God of hope, you have made for everything a season. This is the season of our sorrow, of our grief, and we pray for grace to deal with what seems impossible to deal with. We remember the promise made to those who mourn, yet too often it seems that comfort is beyond our grasp. We know that we cannot bear this burden alone. Should we pray for our grief to be transformed or, is the purpose of our grief to transform us? Will our sorrow lead somewhere unexpected? Might it lead us back to life if we follow it? Is it a reminder of the precious reality of life and love? The death of Jonathon has created a vast, empty space within our lives, a great longing within our hearts. Can it ever be filled? Can it be healed by the sacred memory that makes Jonathon forever a part of us?
So many questions, O God, and so much silence. May we be patient toward all that is unanswered in our hearts. And may others be patient with us, with our sorrow, our anger, our fear and our questions. We are those who mourn. We seek the comfort that we can offer each other and the blessings of divine love and grace. Amen.
[Benediction] Take courage, friends. The path is never clear, the end is always in doubt, and the stakes are very high. Take courage. Deep down, there is a greater truth: you are not alone.