The last funeral I officiated was on a Saturday afternoon in Lent. The woman who died was too young, had cancer, fought valiantly, put her life in Jesus' hands. In many ways her funeral was like many other funerals where I officiate. There is so much that is the same. There are certain songs that almost everyone sings, certain scriptures that occur over and over. The liturgy we use is very simple, and so much is nearly the same every time, although, since my father's funeral last fall, I have taken to tweaking the prayers some, using different prayers than the ones that are in the book.
There was this one unique moment, though, at the beginning of her memorial service.
The woman who died had been a day care provider in our community for many years. She was well known to parent and children for her firm but kind nurture, unapologetic discipline and boundaries, and unconditional love. It was a powerful combination.
At the beginning of the service, at the direction of her family, I asked all of the children and young adults who had been cared for at this woman's day care to come to the entry to the sanctuary. Forty or fifty young people stood up and met me and the doorway, where our funeral coordinator gave each of them a small bouquet of white carnations. At the opening hymn, all of these young people processed in behind me, but before the family. They each placed their carnations in the baptismal font, where they stayed for the entire service.
The woman's husband explained why he wanted to do this, "I wanted everyone to have a part."
Not long before this, at another funeral, there were similar words. A woman, helping to plan her husband's funeral, said, "There are nine grandchildren who all need jobs." At that service, we had readers, eulogists, and intercessory pray-ers.
This is very wise, I thought.
The more I thought about it, the wiser I thought it was.
I thought about all of those carnations in the baptismal font, and I thought about the fact that, at the most recent funeral, all of the eulogists were participants in the woman's day care: two parents, and one of the former day care children.
It took me a while to realize that there was a powerful message being spoken that day, not just the message about the love of God, more powerful than death.
It was the message that so much of our society disbelieves: that we belong to one another. Our family is wider than we think, wider than we know, wider than we see -- except, sometimes at funerals. All around us there is the message that we are on our own. We draw our circles closer and closer, and are told to care only for a few who are closest to our hearts.
But here is the truth: we belong to one another. We are members of one another. Our fates are intertwined. Life and death and love and pain bind us together.
Perhaps it is why there is so much similarity in funerals: our common humanity and hope finds words and sighs. There is bound to be overlap.
And yet: here is the other thing I learn from funerals.
Despite their similarities, no two are really alike. They are like fingerprints. I can't say exactly why, when we sing so much "Amazing Grace" or "Love Divine", and we hear so much about the many mansions, or the resurrection and the Life. But somehow each funeral embodies the hope of a particular child of God, ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, and they are not the same. Sometimes they are small things that matter: a particular story shared, a Scripture verse in German, or a baptismal font full of carnations.