Someone very special in our family died this week. As we drove home from the funeral, with the rain beating down on us on I-10, I pondered some of the aspects of the grieving process while Mrs. Greenbean and the sprout slept.
Emily Dickinson famously wrote a short poem whose first line is,
After great pain, a formal feeling comes
In my years of ministry I have found this to be undeniably true. It is precisely because we do not know what to say or do that ritual, formality, and tradition become necessary helpers. This is why I am an ardent believer in the funeral service as a relevant and vital part of the grieving process. I know that the popular trend is to downplay the service and minimize all the fuss, but I don’t think that is particularly healthy. I noticed driving home how in the time after the funeral the elements of the service, the words of the minister, the actions at the cemetery, and even the placement of the grave were natural points of conversation and shared experience that the entire family was able to lean on. It provided context for what we were all feeling. I never noticed this connection, fully, until I read the excellent book by Thomas Long titled Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral. It is a theological, historical, and sociological gem.
I thought about other things too as I drove, like how grief bubbles to the surface in different ways for different people. For some people, it is a nervous anxiety in which they cannot get comfortable. Others cry openly and loudly. Still others hold it all in, like a suppressed volcano. I am a split-personality griever. When the news first comes, I want to be left alone, reflect, and cry in solitude. This usually lasts only an hour or two. After that, I find that I grieve by telling funny stories about those we miss, laughing at his or her quirky, unique characteristics, and enjoying hearing other people share their stories. As a pastor I always thought one of my primary functions during a funeral was to give others permission to laugh and enjoy, in that weird kind of way, the moment. That is what our departed love ones would want. For evidence of this in my own plans, click here to read an old post about how I plan to put “FUN” in fun-eral. I think we need both the forma feeling of the service as well as the informal laughter. One helps frame the hurt and pain of the situation, while the other allows for the release of tension and the celebration of life. One more thought passed between my ears while I avoided hydroplaning out on the freeway. Death is our constant companion throughout life. We grow up knowing that somewhere, out on the horizon, we will close our eyes for the last time, take our final breath, and the last neuron will fire. Everybody dies. What matters is not the circumstances of our death, but the investments we make during our life. By investments I don’t mean monetary decisions. I mean investments in people. I think about those who invest in their children, in the next generation, those who invest in liberty by defending our nation, those who invest in the environment by protecting it, those who invest in love by opening their heart, and so many other kinds of human-investments. Those are the things that matter. images from http://honda.checkeredflag.com and amazon.com