The First Reading today is a hard one to hear and comprehend and yet I am exactly there–hard pressed, as Paul says in Philippians 1: For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh , that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. I have said from the beginning that this is a win-win situation for me. I know that for those who will remain it is not the same dilemma. However a funeral I attended today assured me that we must all be ready to go or to stay, depending on what is asked of us.
An elder who was a faithful servant in my parish died this week. He had been sick earlier this year but a sudden turn in health changed the outcome of an expected recovery from what I have heard. This man leaves a beautiful legacy in the Catholic world. In our faith community, we will know a hole. His grieving family believes this octogenarian should have remained a while longer. However at the prayers last night and the funeral today, the presider was clear that this man knew where Home was as much as he loved his earthly dwelling and all that it entailed.
The priest’s words stirred my heart at several points during both these celebrations. We are called to serve and this man knew how to do that. He had fruitful labours. He was not so self-absorbed that his life was about him. He created change for the better that glorified God and benefited the multitudes. He did not only work for Catholics but improved educational opportunities for others too. The priest wove his life story into a fascinating tale that made me smile. I could imagine that St. Peter met him at the Gate, threw it wide open, and gleefully invited in this good and faithful servant. May we all be so blessed.
I watch funerals now with a different sense. I notice things I might not have seen before. Last night as I approached the casket, I smiled at the small teddy bear tucked in by his waist and wondered if a grandchild had put it there. We had cremated my sister with one of her stuffies too. I wondered what my family might put in my coffin. The prayers were beautiful. Most people have stopped having them but I like them when they are done properly as they were last night. Readings were proclaimed to comfort those gathered, stories were shared, and the prayer of the deceased’s namesake saint was recited. People had a chance to talk in a smaller, informal manner afterwards. Small groups lingered, deep in conversation. Community is so crucial at moments like this.
Today, as the procession went forward at the beginning, I wondered for the first time who might be my pallbearers. I get so distracted at funerals now. By the time they had reached the front of the church I had four male friends lined up in my head and wondered if women could be pallbearers. The presider did a wonderful job of explaining the purpose of the pall, crucifix and Book of the Gospels. The inclusion around the Eucharist was thoughtful and compassionate. The whole of the service seemed uplifting and gentle. I want this, my inner being seemed to say. I tried to imagine my Jewish and Muslim friends at such a celebration. There was a great deal of talk about Jesus and I wondered if my non-believer (agnostic/atheist) friends would be uncomfortable but I knew that the words I was hearing were exactly what I wanted said. Jesus is my Beloved. I live to praise, honour and serve him. It is that simple. As much as I love my life here and will gladly and gratefully accept each day I am given in order to continue to labour fruitfully, I also desire to be with Jesus. I am hard pressed to decide but for now I choose to stay and relish each moment I have here with loved ones.
The gathering downstairs in the hall was delightful. I watched a community mill around, with tears and laughter. I saw the family being supported. I felt people’s concerns for my own health and well-being. I heard stories that inspired my commitment to pray for others whose own situations were a struggle. This post-funeral time is precious and a necessary part of closure for the community and family. I have long learned to love and appreciate what a gift those fancy sandwiches allow in the form of breaking bread and sharing life in all its pain. I wondered who might be comforting who when my turn comes. What funny stories will people share about me? I cannot think of a better parish to welcome those who will celebrate my life and help to take the edge off the loss that will be felt. As much as funerals are an in-the-face reality check for me, they are also a blessing that affirm where I am going and how life in community will bless those who remain. God is faithful.
Have you given any thought about what your funeral will be like?
How does being part of a community enhance the funeral for those who remain?
Jesus, I long to be with you, Home and at peace. In the meantime, let joy radiate from me as I continue the fruitful labours you task me with. I am happy to serve you all the days of my life and when the time comes, to enter into your presence with praise and thanksgiving. Amen.