Monday, December 31, 2012

I want to be present at my funeral

I want to be present at my funeral. Rather, I want my body to be present even if it is cremated later. Today at many funeral services everyone is present but the deceased person.

As I watched news clips of funerals of Sandy Hook young school  children deliberately shot recently, I noticed the small coffins carried lovingly, gently, to the cemeteries. Their funeral services had the bodies present.

Were any of these small bodies  buried or cremated first and the service held later?  I don’t know but I doubt it.  

Today funeral services, or memorial services as they are called,  are often held without the body. Only a few photos, maybe a video of the person’s life and other mementos,  sometimes anecdotes, represent the “dearly departed” person.   It’s a celebration of life, not death, we’re told.So the body is buried first with just a few people present and the services held later, sometimes weeks later.

Yet such a service is impoverished without the body.  Bodies matter, even in death, at funeral services.

Sometime in the 1970s I visited India for an extended period.  At one stop we  were told on arrival that the infant daughter of one of the seminary  teachers had died.  In that hot country burial always takes place within 24 hours.

My hostess and a few of us went to the home where the body of the tiny infant was laid out on a bed bedecked with flowers.  Friends and family would spend the night here drinking tea, praying and singing.

The next morning, very early, we headed for the chapel for the funeral service. A tiny white coffin stood before the altar.  After the service, the entire congregation headed slowly for the cemetery about a quarter of a mile away.  At the head of the procession several men carried the precious little burden, followed by the immediate family of mourners,  singing hymns of faith and trust. The memory of that long line winding up the hill, women in beautifully colored saris, will never leave me. The body of Christ was upholding the body of one of their members.

Funerals should make a theological statement about life and death. But I don't mean a high-powered evangelistic  sermon.  These people had supported this  young family in life. Now they were performing the final task  for them in death  --- carrying the body  to its final resting place and together stating that life is a journey toward God and we make this journey together as believers in Christ.  Bearing the body is evidence of the church in action. 

I have another memory of a funeral procession that took place here in Wichita about six years ago.  My son’s father-in-law, Preston Huston,  had died. At the cemetery the pallbearers, six young adult grandchildren, including three girls,  carried the heavy coffin from the hearse to the burial spot.  They staggered slightly before they found their balance.  In life Grandpa Huston had supported them in many ways.  In death, they were now carrying his body.   The symbolism was strong.

Today funeral services, often divorced from the body, are a showy, sometimes expensive feel-good service for mourners – to help them get over it and get on with living. To get on with it is today’s mantra.  Yet mourning is a process, sometimes a long one, and it begins with saying good-bye to the body as well as the spirit of the person.

Death, the great enemy,   is much more than a medical failure or biological ending to a life.  It is not just  a blip on the screen  of life highlighted  by a video clip. It is an autobiographical event, especially in the life of believers  – a journey  onward to God and eternity.

Yes, I want my body to be present at my funeral.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A story is nothing but a big hug

Why tell a story? 

The answer  became clear to me once again this morning as I read Frederick Buechner’s words: “My story is important not because it is mine, . . . . but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”  

Yesterday in church a couple of people commented on my recent essay published in Mennonite World Review: “Christmas: Season of Courage.”  When  people like a piece of writing it is usually because they identify with the stories in some way. Their circumstances may have been quite different from mine, but the emotions are the same. And that is why they like the stories.  Someone is telling their story.  And they recognize it. 

I treasured my father’s stories while growing up.  He told stories about his experiences in World War I in the Russian medical corps. He knew the loneliness of being away from home in the huge city of Moscow as a young army soldier for the first time. 

He also told about the deaths of his father, grandparents and an uncle in two quick weeks because of typhus and famine.  He learned of the inhumanity of man to man when he was desperate for help to bury these four bodies. 

I realize now he was trying to make sense of the atrocities and absurdities of the horrible violence he had been witnessing daily by talking about them. 

I treasured each story not because I had experienced war horrors  but because I have experienced the same emotions--the same aching emptiness after the  death of a family member, the  same desperate despair when the family purse kept getting emptier and emptier, the  same strange exultant peace in the soul at arriving at a spiritual decision. 

I think that is why I wait for a story, a personal story, when I listen to a sermon—I am looking for inspiration, not just more abstract terminology and vague generalities. I am waiting for the preacher to tell my story.

In story-telling the listener learns that hope is always hope, forgiveness is always forgiveness, courage is always courage.  And even if he or she can’t quite articulate this vague  understanding,  identification takes place. “I am also that person in the story.” 

This Christmas interest will once again migrate to new electronic equipment like  smart phones, computer   software,  digital cameras, bigger TVs and much more.  I find it hard to talk about such items because I know too little about them. I feel  like a rabbit in a fish pond. I don’t migrate willingly to discussion about such items. 

Since I live alone and don’t go out much anymore, I spend much time thinking about the past – retrieving the stories of my life.   These elusive events flit back into my mind like butterflies on the wing, begging to be remembered.  Other times they’re like wild boars, grunting “Remember me?” But they want to be brought to life, to be retrieved by someone. They are demanding to be told.

I like to tell stories about my life because that is what I know best.   I like to give away my stories because then they become a shared experience. 

What people my age have to offer in terms of wisdom, experience, and stories seems almost quaint when compared to passing on information about which is the best electronic  game to buy.

In  Michener’s Hawaii, the native children memorized their family tree, back eighty generations, and learned the stories of those generations. It was the life-blood being passed down generation to generation. DNA, if you  will.

I see stories as a way of embracing another person or group – even a congregation.  They tell the listener: “I trust you with this story about my life.”  

In this hug-happy society, I advocate we pass along more stories. Hug someone with a real story today.