October 13, 2009

Care for the Dead

At the end of last week’s meeting, we observed that this session on the Care of the Dead is really just a continuation of our discussion of Fellowship and Hospitality. That’s because the departed are still part of our community; they continue to be present in our parish, and we have responsibilities to them which reflect the obligations of hospitality and fellowship that we owe to the living. We see these dynamics at work all throughout Jayber Crow.

In our last meeting, we mentioned that Jayber has two visions of the departed, and the most comprehensive of these visions occurs one day when he is cleaning the church:
Waking or sleeping (I couldn’t tell which), I saw all the people gathered there who had ever been there. I saw them as I had seen them from the back pew, where I sat with Uncle Othy (who would not come in any farther) while Aunt Cordie sang in the choir, and I saw them as I had seem them (from the back pew) on the Sunday before. I saw them in all the times past and to come, all somehow there in their own time and in all time and in no time: the cheerfully working and singing women, the men quiet or reluctant or shy, the weary, the troubled in spirit, the sick, the lame, the desperate, the dying…I saw them all. (pp164-165)

The people of Port William sustain their fellowship with the dead in many different ways: Burley and Jayber fill in Mat Feltner’s grave; Mattie Chatham spends time at her daughter’s grave; Della Keith brings flowers to her husband’s grave; the entire community visits the cemetery on Decoration Day, and folks clean the graves of their family members and friends. Those are the tangible expressions of Port William’s fellowship with the dead, but Wendell Berry is just as adept at describing grief, which is the way a community maintains it’s emotional and psychological connection to the departed.

During the chapter on World War II, Berry has Jayber make this observation:
New grief when it came, you could feel filling the air. It took up all the room there was. The place itself, the whole place, became a reminder of the absence of the hurt or dead or missing one. I don’t believe that grief passes away. It has its time and place forever. More time is added to it; it becomes a story within a story. But grief and griever alike endure. (p148)
Towards the end of the novel, Berry has Jayber make these remarks about grief:
I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. One by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cost. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready. (p353)
So Port William has this organic connection with the members who have gone on before, and Jayber feels this connection and articulates this connection in poetic and powerful way.

Unfortunately, the connection depicted in the novel is no longer at work for most of 21st century America. The social structures which made our connections with the departed concrete have all but disappeared since most of us no longer live in small towns and most of us no longer have access to local cemeteries. Individuals and families may still tend graves or conduct annual memorials, but there is very little in our society that even approaches the kind of community fellowship with the dead that we find in the pages of Jayber Crow. And grief is now understood to be a psychological and emotional state which must be managed and should be worked through. Of course, another reason for the disappearance of this connection is the absence of any theological understanding of our fellowship with the departed. This is actually reflected in Wendell Berry’s novel: Port William is a Protestant community, and that means the membership has lost touch with all but a few echoes of what the Church has historically taught concerning the departed (and this is preserved primarily in hymns such as “In the Sweet By and By”). That is why, when he’s talking about the dead, Jayber relies more on his own personal experience than on theology. But, in 21st century America, there are no longer even any echoes of the Church’s teaching.

In fact, it is common for our brothers and sisters who are American Christians to maintain that Holy Scripture really has very little to say about how we should interact with the departed. I hope that the texts we looked at in preparation for this evening’s session have demonstrated just how mistaken that approach is. The two passages from Genesis are both quite long, and they both deal with funeral arrangements and funeral services: Abraham buys the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite to use as a family burial plot, and Joseph prepares the body of his father Jacob for burial and then takes the body to the same cave that Abraham had purchased. But the two passages from the Holy Gospels also deal with funeral arrangements. These arrangements are interrupted or rendered unnecessary by the resurrection of our Lord and Master, but the women who go to the tomb in St Luke’s Gospel, and St Joseph and St Nicodemus who prepare the body of Christ Jesus in St John’s Gospel, are participating in the concrete expression of our fellowship with the departed. So these sorts of activities are not inconsequential; they are not just cultural artifacts; they are important ways in which we maintain our connection to the dead.

Of course, many American Christians would insist that we have no real fellowship with the dead. But in the oldest piece of New Testament writing, in St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle addresses this subject. He assures the community in Thessalonica that the departed are simply sleeping; he tells the Thessalonian Christians that the dead will be awakened by Christ Jesus on the Great and Fearful Day of Judgment. And the use of language here is crucial: St Paul doesn’t say that the dead are gone; he doesn’t even use the word that the Church eventually adopted, which is the verb departed; he uses the word asleep. And while that word implies a separate state of consciousness, it does not require the person to be absent. In his letter to the Hebrews, there is a text which should be familiar to us all but which I neglected to put on the syllabus. In chapter eleven of that epistle, St Paul talks at length about the holy and righteous men and women of the Old Testament, and then, at the beginning of chapter twelve, he observes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” Again, there is the clear sense that we are connected to these people, even though the apostle is talking about men and women who lived thousands of years before he wrote his letter.

However, the primary New Testament testimony to our fellowship with the departed is a personal and almost parenthetical remark that St Paul makes in his second letter to St Timothy. In the first chapter of that letter, the apostle prays that the Most Holy Trinity will be merciful to the household of Onesiphorus, and he later also prays that the "Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day” (1.18). The passage does not categorically state that Onesiphorus is dead, but the only objection one could have to such a reading would be that St Paul would not offer a prayer for a dead man. But that would be reading our presuppositions into the text, so what we have in this passage is the apostle praying for someone who has departed this life. That is the most intimate way in which we can maintain our fellowship with the dead, and the Church has followed the apostle’s example by providing us with many opportunities to pray for the departed.

In fact, the Church has taken each of the different aspects of our connection with the departed that we have identified in this very, very brief review of Holy Scripture and developed them in ways that are rich and nourishing. For example, the Church has always placed a great deal of emphasis on funeral services. In fact, in the early second century, many Roman observers thought that the Church was a funeral society—an association of people who would gather together and pay dues into a common fund in order to ensure that each member receive a decent funeral. Further, the Church prays frequently for those who did not receive a proper funeral, thus demonstrating the importance of the preparations and services. In addition, because each member of the Church receives the same funeral, there is not the atomized and idiosyncratic approach to services that we find in society and in American Christianity. And the Church’s approach to funerals requires us to take time and make preparations and actually work hard to pull it off. This makes the whole process much more personal (rather like Jayber digging the graves of his friends) when the entire tendency in our society and American Christianity is to hand the entire effort over to professionals and make everything as effortless as possible.

The Church also provides us with a way to express our grief. There is a specific calendar of activities which accompany the loss of a friend or loved one; there are certain kinds of clothes that should be worn and certain activities which are to be avoided. At first glance, many Americans would regard this kind of structure as oppressive and confining, but, on closer examination, it is easy to see that this framework provides guidance in a very confusing time and a clear, simple way to maintain our connection with a friend or loved one in the weeks and months immediately following that person’s death. Of even greater benefit is the fact that the Church allows us to be sad—both at the funeral itself, which is a somber service, and afterwards. Not only that, but the Church gives us a way to practice being sad in the two annual services of Lamentations—the one for Christ Jesus on Great and Holy Friday and the other for the Mother of God on the eve of her Dormition. This is a gift that is simply unavailable anywhere else in American culture or American Christianity, because sadness is one of the few social sins left in American society, and American Christianity does it’s best to reflect that emphasis (for example, the congregation that is currently the most popular in this part of Central Texas is called simply Celebration Church; so how do you have a funeral at a place that is named Celebration?).

And, of course, the Church provides us with opportunities for prayer: with the exception of the Hours, each and every service of the Church has fixed prayers for the departed (and prayers for the dead can certainly be inserted into the Hours); the liturgy includes prayers for the departed; there are specific services—akathists, memorials—that can be done for the dead; each Saturday is a general day of remembrance for the departed, and there are four Souls’ Saturdays during the year when the faithful are specifically tasked to pray for the dead. So we are talking about more than resources here; we’re talking about more than a schedule; this is a way of life in which our fellowship with the departed is a constant factor.

So, if we want our parish to be an authentic community in the fullest sense of the word, then we must include the departed in the fellowship of our parish. The easiest way to do that is to simply embrace the way of life that has been handed down to us in the Church, but that will require some intentionality, and intentionality presupposes planning. In other words, if we only start thinking about death and our fellowship with the departed after a member of our family or a close friend has died, then we will be over-taken by events and emotions and the expectations of others, and we will end up with an experience and a set of circumstances that reflect the values of our culture. Simply put, we have to let people know what kind of service we want and how we want our body to be prepared and where we want to be buried and what kind of memorials we wish to leave behind. To that end, I have asked the owners of Beck Funeral Home to join us for the first two Souls’ Saturdays in 2010; they will be with us on Sat, Feb 27th, and Sat, Mar 6th, to provide people with information about funeral arrangements and to even provide people with the opportunity to get started on those arrangements.

But, in addition to embracing the way of life the Church has given us, we also need to begin developing social structures within that way of life. Consequently, we need to encourage people to participate in the preparation of the body of their loved one or friend; we need to encourage people to have their funerals at the temple and not at a funeral home; we need to encourage people to be buried in the Cedar Park Cemetery and not in some far away location; we need to encourage people to offer annual memorials for their departed friends and family members. Washing and dressing the body of a loved one or friend is a powerful, final act of hands-on charity; it is a reflection of what the Myrrh-bearing Women and St Joseph and St Nicodemus did for our Lord and Master. Having the funeral in the temple gives the parish one last, tangible opportunity to worship with the departed person. Taking advantage of the cemetery down the road will make it easy for our community to have contact with the departed that is direct and concrete. (Many, many parishes wish they could have a cemetery on their property, but we have something that is almost as good which is a cemetery just a few blocks away. Yes, it’s not an especially attractive location, but what is going to make that cemetery beautiful is the same thing that has made our property here beautiful—our prayers and the presence of a loving, caring, committed community.) Having a local cemetery will also make it easier to have annual memorials: kollyva is offered during the liturgy; the family goes down to the cemetery afterwards for an additional memorial service, and then they all have a meal together. Emphasizing each of these structures will help our community maintain the fellowship it already has with the departed, and it will help us broaden our understanding of what it means to live for others. Wendell Berry has written, “love, sooner or later, forces us out of time”; the apostle Paul has written, “love never fails”; taking responsibility for how we care for the dead will help us put that kind of love into action.

Thank you for your on-going participation in and prayers for this project. Next week we will be talking about the Economy of our community.

fr. aidan

No comments: