Funerals are those moments in human life where we ritualize our understanding of grief and death. Families and friends gather to talk, to process, to do those things that help them understand this great mystery of being human. Yes, somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds we know that our lives are finite, all of what we see and do will come to an end. Yet, when we are confronted by that specter, when the phone call comes or the knock on the door, we take in a breath as we hear the words that someone we know has died. Today I presided at the funeral of a woman who lived to be 101 years old. Imagine, living that many years, seeing so much of the world changing, a true living history. Born before the First World War, Maddy grew up in a much different society, one where her options were limited, where the rules of life were more restrictive. She became a teacher, a person who touched the lives of so many young people, one of which came to her funeral remembering her as a kind, gentle teacher committed to the students. In her very quiet way she gave so much of herself, to her family, friends, community and the church. She never married, she never had children of her own, never knew that side of life and yet she never dwelt on the what ifs, instead she lived fully into her vocation. Did Maddy ever have a love, someone who she had a teenage crush on? How different would she have been had there been that one great love, we will never know, but really is that all that important in life?
Today was a celebration of the end of a long life. It’s hard to truly mourn such a long lived person and maybe our mourning isn’t so much for her as it is for ourselves. Those moments that we have missed, the road not travelled, the love not explored as our lives move along at warp speed and our busyness becomes our obsession. For a few moments, busy lives took a break from the race to allow themselves a chance to let the grief wash over them. Like a tide coming in there is no stopping the emotions, memories of intimacy, of special conversations, all break through to be displayed in the theater of the mind.
As people mourn Maddy’s death, I become aware that some of the grief comes from the many unseen struggles so many carry. Bodies that once were strong and vital slowly succumbing to the winds of time. I become acutely aware of my own mortality as I look out into a sea of faces all seeking that comforting word and my own heart weeps in silence. I shake the hand of one whose body is showing the effects of Parkinson’s and my heart breaks. My words are not enough for this moment and maybe that’s as it should be because words can get in the way.
Tomorrow there will be another funeral, another family dealing with their memories. Different folks but yet all the same, all facing their vulnerabilities in a moment together while I stand there as a sort of conduit for their grief before God. Hands will once again be held, tears will be shed and hearts will be heavy. My own hands will be lifted up, my own sacrifice will be offered and my words will be sent out to drift on the winds and settle in the deep places.