Richard B. Steele, PhD
Professor of Moral and Historical Theology
Associate Dean of Graduate Theological Studies
School of Theology, Seattle Pacific University
January 28, 2016
A funeral is more than a forceful reminder that the life of someone we have cared for is over. It is also an expression of the continuation of that person’s life within the ongoing lives of family, friends, and community. It is an expression of the robust interconnectedness of us all.
– Margaret E. Mohrmann, MD(1)
In this column, I want to illustrate the profound truth of Dr. Mohrmann’s observation. I shall do so by telling the stories of two funerals that I conducted some years ago, when I was a parish pastor. Actually, I shall say little about the funeral services as such. My focus will be on the conversations I had with the families of the deceased in preparation for the services. It was during these conversations that I caught a glimpse of how the life of one who has died is somehow “continued” in the lives of the bereaved—for good or ill.
The first story is about a man whom I shall call Floyd. His wife was a fairly active member of the church I served, though in my twelve years at that parish I had never met Floyd. Maybe I should have sought him out more diligently than I did, but from what I learned about him from his family in the days after his death, I doubt he would have been very receptive to such an overture.
It was my practice, when informed of a death in the parish, to ask the family to gather to reminisce, pray together and plan the service. Usually this meeting took place in the home of the deceased or one of his or her close relatives. But when I asked Floyd’s widow, Mildred, about holding such a meeting, she insisted that it be done at the church, not in the home. So next I met with Mildred and her three children at the church. The odd thing was that the four of them seemed more nervous about the meeting than grief-stricken over Floyd’s death. To break the ice, I asked them to share their memories of Floyd. I was also hoping for some information about the man to use in the eulogy. But I was met with an awkward silence. They couldn’t seem to think of anything to say. So I prodded them a bit. Did Floyd have any hobbies or favorite pastimes? No. Did he ever take them on any memorable vacations? No. Had his friends or co-workers shared anything special about him in the past few days? Well, his only friends were his drinking buddies, and they certainly hadn’t called to offer condolences. But neither had his co-workers. I tried to keep up my warm, pastoral demeanor, but I was utterly stunned. This man had apparently passed through the world without having had the slightest impact on anybody.
Finally, one of them said to the others, “Well, we could tell Pastor Rick about the desk.” The rest chuckled grimly. “Sure, go ahead,” I pleaded, desperate now to know anything concrete at all about this man. So they told me. Seven years before, Floyd had gone to an auction and bought a large oak desk for their family room. But when he got it home, he ran into a problem. The desk wouldn’t fit through the door into the house. So he set it down in the garage—where it had sat ever since. He’d never taken off the legs to get it through the door. He’d never tried taking it around to the front door. He’d never done anything with it at all.
By now I was fighting back tears, for it was clear to me what this story was meant to convey: To his family, that big, clunky, useless piece of beat-up second-hand furniture was a symbol of the man himself. It served no purpose. It just took up space.
At first blush, this unnerving tale seems to contradict Mohrmann’s claim that a person’s life is a web of connections, most intimately with one’s relatives and closest friends, but extending outward to embrace neighbors, colleagues and members of the wider community. And this web does not instantly unravel when the person dies, but is perpetuated through rituals of mourning and remembering. Some of these rituals, such as the funeral service, the wake, and the Jewish practice of “sitting shiva,” are formal, public and highly stylized; others, such as preparing a scrapbook of pictures and mementoes from the person’s life, or hoisting a glass in tribute on the anniversary of the death, are homey, familiar and nostalgic.
But was there such a web of connections in Floyd’s case? Well, apparently not much of one—and it’s hard to imagine that such flimsy, tattered threads as may have existed during his life lasted long after his death. Yet this seems to me to be the exception that proves Mohrmann’s rule. The tragedy of Floyd’s life was not that he didn’t have connections with others. It’s that there was not much vitality to his existence, no point to his story. There wasn’t much “him” to connect them to. And it was precisely the inert blockishness of the man that was remembered by his family—and symbolized by them as a piece of household junk.
In refreshing contrast to the story of Floyd is the story of Ed, who died about a year later. Ed and his wife Hermine were an elderly couple, who had been as active in the congregation and the community as their declining health permitted. They scarcely missed a Sunday service—except a few times when one or the other was in the hospital. At such times the healthy one stayed round the clock with the other. Ed and Hermine loved each other deeply—and they both loved children. Each had been widowed early in life, and each had children from a previous marriage. But they had both been single for many years before remarrying, and were too old at that point to have kids together.
When Ed died, Hermine invited me over to the house to plan the funeral. When I arrived, I was met by a bustling houseful of people—all of Ed’s kids, all of Hermine’s, all of their spouses, and all of the grandchildren. We sat in a huge circle in the den, laughing and crying and telling stories for hours. I will share just one of these, told by Ed’s youngest son, Bill.
Bill’s mother, Ed’s first wife, had died when Bill was a toddler. One of his earliest childhood memories was when he went to kindergarten and learned to read. The class had mastered those famous words, “See Spot. See Spot run…,” and the teacher had invited the children’s mothers to come for a recitation. But Bill had no mother. The kids were seated in a circle, and behind each child was his or her mother. Except for Bill. Yet the chair behind Bill wasn’t empty, for there sat his dad, the only man in the circle, but completely at ease and proud as punch!
At that time Ed was a young executive in a large manufacturing company. He was on his way up the corporate ladder fast, and from what his co-workers said at the funeral, he was headed for the very top. But he never got there. After his first wife died, he had to take many days off work to attend such functions with his children. He couldn’t put in the long hours demanded of a bigwig, or take work home. So when he retired, he was still a mid-level employee, beloved and respected by everyone, but not as “successful” as he might have been.
Yet what is success? Is it having your picture on page one of a glossy annual report to the stockholders . . . or living in such a way that your family has dozens of stories like that one to tell about you when you die? Maybe some people can have both. But faced with a choice between them, Ed made the latter without blinking an eye. Ed was a success precisely because he had really lived his life. He hadn’t wasted it with trivialities and irrelevancies. He had faced the temptation to feel bitter when family tragedy struck—and had prevailed. He had faced the urge to sacrifice his children’s welfare on the altar of career ambition—and had conquered.
Here we have as vivid and encouraging an example of Mohrmann’s point as we could wish. The sorrow Ed’s family and friends felt at his death was in direct proportion to the joy they had always taken in his presence among them, and in the gratitude they felt for his quiet, steady, unselfconscious contributions to their well-being. The tightly woven web of relationships that he had established over a lifetime as a husband, father, step-father, grandfather, business man and churchman survived his passing because there were so many stories worth telling about him. And there would be many worthwhile occasions in the days and years to come—birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, Sunday dinners, summer vacations—on which his survivors might gather to tell them.
(1) Margaret E. Mohrmann, M.D., Medicine as Ministry: Reflections on Suffering, Ethics and Hope (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1995), 105f.