I was out of the country recently when a member of my congregation died. When this happens I feel the pain of being unable to do anything helpful, and a little guilt as well. That’s when I relearn a basic lesson in ecclesiology: I belong to a community of faith that knows how to be a church in my absence.
Our teacher cautions us that the corpse pose is the most difficult of all yoga postures to master, but after an hour’s exertion in warrior pose, downward-facing dog and cobra, the prospect of relaxing horizontally on one’s yoga mat brings both relief and the impertinent question, “How hard can it be?” Fascinated, I report to my husband, “Every day at the conclusion of yoga class we practice dying.” “That’s interesting,” he says, trying to share my enthusiasm. “It’s kind of like Lent,” I venture. "Lent is when we’re supposed to practice dying, right?”
We can scarcely imagine life without tears. We come into the world crying, and when we are hungry or wet or not held enough—no matter how old we are—we cry. Tears come unbidden to us when we are moved by beauty or by someone’s kindness to us. I often cry when a good book or movie has a sad ending, and I cry at a happy ending too. I even cry at Hallmark TV ads.
With surprising swiftness and dramatic results, a significant segment of American Christians has over the past 50 years abandoned previously established funeral customs in favor of an entirely new pattern of memorializing the dead. Generally included in the pattern is a brief, customized memorial service (instead of a funeral), a focus on the life of the deceased, an emphasis on joy rather than sadness, and a private disposition of the deceased.
At my 20-week ultrasound appointment, my husband and I learned that the baby that we are expecting has a fatal birth defect. Sometime very early in his development something went drastically wrong. His skull never formed—the whole top and back part of it simply did not exist. We will probably never find a medical answer to why he developed this way.
When my son Michael died suddenly at age 38, he left a pregnant wife and an infant. At the funeral I told those who crowded the cemetery that I had been there—when I lost my wife suddenly after a car accident. I said that I knew that as time passes people move on and fade away. I pleaded with family and friends to stay with Michael’s widow and children for years to come.
On a nasty night, Christmas Eve 1965, members of my family walked into my father’s hospital room. We had just returned from my grandparents’ home, where we had celebrated a Swedish smorgasbord, caroled and opened presents. The sideboard boasted turkey, meatballs, limpa bread, inlagd sill, lutfisk, spritz cookies and svensk plum pudding.
When a Los Angeles Dodger hit a grand-slam home run off of the Cubs’ most reliable pitcher in the first game of the National League division series, a great silence descended on Wrigley Field. I was there, one of 42,000 faithful who thought this might be the year our team would go all the way.