More and more, it seems, instead of funerals, there are these events called "A Celebration of Life." We don't use this language at my congregation, but I see it everywhere. And I know that this trend has been roundly criticized by most serious and pastoral theologians. It is is part of the denial of death. Someone dies. Instead of grieving, we celebrate. Funerals are depressing, after all.
I am not here to deny any of these realities. It is true. Our culture is deeply death-denying. We're not all that fond of aging, either. I, personally, have been putting a lot of lotion on my neck recently, even though I know it doesn't do any good. Why do I do it? I don't want to look too old. I don't want to think too hard about the fact that someone I loved has died, and that someday, I will die, too.
So, yes, I suppose that the motivation for a Celebration of Life is at least, in part, due to our deep desire to avoid anything unpleasant, or depressing. But lately, I have been thinking that there might be something else going on as well. We desire to have a Celebration of Life not just because we want to deny death, and deny grief, but for another reason as well.
Recently, my father died, after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease. This time I was on the other side of the desk, with the mourners, the rememberers. I was considering scripture and music and what we would say during the service. I was with my family, going through pictures, sharing stories, trying to put together a collage of pictures that would say something about my father's ordinary, un-celebrated life. Besides the pictures, we had mementos of his time singing with a Swedish Men's Choral Group, and a small collection of Mickey Mouse pictures and stuffed toys (my dad thought that he and Mickey Mouse shared a birthday).
My father was an ordinary person. He sold and repaired radios and TVs, he raised a family, he sang, he told jokes. He picked up stray dogs when he was little, but his parents never let him keep one. Later on he learned to tinker with radios. He was always amazed by the miracle of broadcasting. He lived all of his life in Minneapolis, but after retirement, loved spending the winters in Arizona. He was amazing with voices and accents, and until he lost his hearing, he had pretty good pitch.
As I looked at the pictures and mementos, I realized that I wanted to celebrate my dad's life. I was mourning as well, but I wanted to celebrate.. I wanted to try to gather as many memories as I could and sweep them into a container so that they could not be forgotten. I wanted to write down the memories while I can still tell them.
I just picked up a copy of a book called Ties that Bind, by Dave Isay, the founder of Storycorps. It is a compilation of a few of the stories from the first ten years of that organization. Storycorps mission is to record stories of ordinary people.
In the introduction to the book, Dave tells about a founding event, at Grand Central Terminal. Studs Terkel is there, and he proudly announces, "Today we shall begin celebrating the lives of the uncelebrated!"
And there it was.
The legacy that most of us leave is small, and ordinary. We are not celebrated. Our obituaries in the newspaper are short. And yet we are children of God, as promised and proclaimed. And what is a funeral, after all? It is a time to name death, to grieve, to proclaim hope.
But it is also a time to celebrate the lives of the un-celebrated.
Like my father.