Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Age of Saying Goodbye

It was my third funeral in six months.

I attended my first funeral in 1987. I was the preacher. I was 26, and I had never been to a funeral in my life; now a member of the church of which I was student pastor had passed away, and I had to preside at her service. This being southern Illinois, it was an open casket service. It was a macabre experience, and I was extremely nervous going in, but apparently I acquitted myself well. Over the course of the next thirteen years, I performed many more funerals, some of them for parishioners I knew well, but most for strangers with only a tenuous connection to the church I was serving at the time. I became adept at preparing for these services, interviewing the family, selecting hymns, preaching a sermon that was personalized, comforting, and inspiring, setting just the right tone for the liturgy. I believe this was the most effective part of my ministry.

And then it stopped. In January 2000, I walked away from ministry, with the help of a not-too-gentle push from the United Methodist Church. Since then, I've been to very few funerals or memorial services--until this year, when I attended three, all for people I knew.

I am at the age, it seems, of attending funerals for the parents of friends--though in the case of Jo Bellinger, that description does not do her justice. I shared the third floor of the Peace House with Jo for three years. She was a classy lady, divorced at 59, moved into the Peace House soon after its founding in 1985, and launched her own career as a potter at 70, learning the craft from one of her five sons. Jo was deeply connected to all of them, worried about them constantly, and in that reminded me very much of my own mother. By the time I met her, she was 79, and beginning to lose her mobility as Parkinson's set in. She was a quiet talker, very private, with a dry wit that could be sharp and surprising. For three years she looked to me and my children as an extension of her own family. Her death came after a long decline, but not until all five of her sons could be present in her room, singing Christmas carols to her, and one of them could usher her into her final transition with a song he had written for her about passages.

There will be many more funerals in the coming years. The generation that mentored and parented me is beginning to pass. My teachers, professors, pastors, counselors are dropping away. So are my parents' generation of family members: my uncle died last year. My father is 87, and frail. Two other Peace House residents I have known for decades are in their 80s and beset by many health problems. Yes, there will be many more occasions for me to put on my good shoes and be in the company of others as they remember who someone was, and return another soul to the earth.

The funerals will continue for a time, and then that generation will be gone. There will be an interim during which there are few deaths. And then the next wave will hit, only this time, it won't be the parents of friends, but the friends themselves who are passing. And one day the picture on the mantle, the ashes in the urn, will be mine.

It comes to us all. I will not speculate here on what lies beyond, because, as ever, I am an agnostic on that question. What I will say is that the symmetry of every life, from birth to development to death, is part of what connects us to our world. We are the clocks of creation, living, moving calendars showing the passage of time with her tightening joints, deepening wrinkles, and fading memories. My life is a record of the Space Age, which began in earnest just weeks after my birth with the first manned space flights by both the USSR and USA.

Jo's funeral was based on the United Methodist Service of Death and Resurrection, a liturgy I used countless times as a pastor, but which I don't believe I ever experienced from the pews--until today. Those were powerful words, and I found them deeply moving, and impressed that they were created for a Methodist service. Methodist liturgy can have a taint of composition by committee, but these texts are profound, embracing the sadness of farewell, the fear of what comes after, and the hope that somehow, in ways none of us can know, this person who is no more really is now in God's hands.

Whether or not that's true--whether or not there's even a God--is beside the point. Jo lived a long, fruitful life, and was clearly ready to leave it. She will be missed. We will grieve her passing for the selfish reason that we wish she was still in our lives; but we cannot begrudge her for releasing life's hold on her tired old soul.

Godspeed, Jo.

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