Here’s another letter to Dr. Graybeal from my 1st year as a pastor:
January 21, 2005
Hope this note finds you very well and enjoying your holiday between semesters. Things here stay interesting. I survived the Grand Inquisition at Mt. St. Alphonsus. Actually, it was much better than I expected. I was blessed with a very loving band of inquisitors. Had one rough spot answering a question involving a soccer team and a Rabbi, but who wouldn’t? Other than that, I managed to baffle them with my fancy footwork. Seems I am now a probationary member of the elite squad of radicals, reformers and old sinners known as the Methodist clergy.
And if that isn’t scary enough, I visited a crematorium. First, of course, I officiated at a funeral. I kept thinking of the Robert Frost poem: and since they weren’t the ones dead, they went about their business… Was that Frost? I looked in my Frost collection but couldn’t find the poem. It’s haunting me.
Alas, back to death. The church I’m serving needs to grow so badly, it can’t afford to lose any members, so death is forbidden. At our very first coffee hour I explained to them gently yet firmly that they are not allowed to die—they may only reproduce. Babies Not Funerals, that’s our motto! They got a real kick out of that—the youngest person in the congregation is pushing seventy.
However, someone who hasn’t attended the church in years but still felt connected to the congregation, passed away. This was acceptable since he wasn’t mailing in an offering. I got a call from the local funeral director, and with the aid of my trusty United Methodist Book of Worship, I helped Mr. Francis—his friends called him “Frankie”—Gublashe move on. At least I hope I helped. What is it we promise, to do no harm? This is such a dangerous job.
Just for starters, I was certain that I’d screw up the name of the deceased. Let’s face it—“Gublashe” is not an easy name. You’d think with a first funeral, a gal could catch a break and get a “Smith” or a “Jones”, but no, I had to get a guy whose grandfather came from Hungaria.
I paced the back of the funeral parlor, repeating that last name over and over like a mantra, “Gublashe”, “Gublashe”, “Gublashe”. Still I double-checked with one of the guys working there, “goo-blahs hay, right? Gooo–Blaaahs? Ahhh… Like when you stick your tongue out at the doctor’s office?” The guy at the funeral parlor looked at me like I was nuts, but I was terrified that I’d call the poor guy “Frankie Galoshes” before the whole thing was over. Ten minutes before the service began, I saw the funeral director mouthing the name with great uncertainty. By the time I left, nobody knew what to call the guy.
But I imagine I did all right because the same funeral director called me back this week, and I did funerals two and three on Wednesday, in the morning and afternoon. Nothing like packing all your hands-on experience into one day. For the full effect, the last service was held at the graveside during a snowstorm.
In between funerals, I visited the crematorium by invitation of the funeral director who had to pick up the remains of our afternoon deceased. I’d never really thought about crematorium workers much; turns out they’re hilarious. Yet, I fought the urge to linger; a mild discomfort settled over me listening to the men joke about their work, and though I tried hard to remain professional—they were good—two of the funniest human beings I have ever met, and it was obvious they were pulling out all the stops, performing their best crematorium routine for the new pastor in town.
Hunched over with belly laughs watching a cremation, I fretted a little for fear of irreverence; but I did linger, grounding myself with a shoulder against the wall, half-shielded in the corner closest to the door, I lingered and laughed out loud while watching a coffin sized box disappear into a contraption best described as a big oven in the wall. Conflicted though I was, I laughed until I cried and finally pulled myself together, realizing of course that the crematorium guys use humor as a defense against a ghoulish job. But that only made me wonder if they’re funny when they’re not at the crematorium.
I will say that with all of three funerals and two memorials under my belt, I have a lot to learn. Fortunately, one thing dawned on me early—you can’t take anything for granted. If the devil is in the details, God must be there too. It can’t ever be the fourth funeral or even the fifty-fifth funeral. For those gathered to mourn it is the only funeral.
Which reminds me of that Frost poem again. A clue came to me during a yawn-turned-epiphany, and I took a break to find it. Seems that I had the line wrong, but the idea right. That’s why it was haunting me—it’s a warning about the bureaucracy of death.
It’s called, “Departmental”. It’s about insects; elusive yet whimsical notions of ants finally lead me to the right page. Here’s the end of it:
And presently on the scene Appears a solemn mortician; And taking formal position, With feelers calmly atwiddle, Seizes the dead by the middle, And heaving him high in the air, Carries him out of there. No one stands round to stare. It is nobody else’s affair. It couldn’t be called ungentle. But how thoroughly departmental.
If I officiate at a hundred funerals may I always remember Robert Frost.
 Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969.
2 thoughts on “the funeral”
people used to be on more intimate, personal terms with death. When our horizon was pretty confined to the community we knew, then death involved us directly, but we were less aware of the scale of death. Now that technology has lengthened our personal life and shrunk the whole world into our daily awareness, death involves us less personally and more impersonally. The deaths of strangers often intrude into our awareness, and of our loved ones less often. So we are less involved even though we’re exposed to more death. Perhaps this makes us less moved by death, more detached. We can even think of it as entertainment, not as gallows humor to insulate ourselves, but as a game, or accident, or collateral damage. Maybe this is related to a general alienation that’s crept into modern life over a century. We expect more privacy, less suffering, more ease, less work, more freedom, less responsibility, more pleasure, no pain, and not even to think about death as relating to us at all. To me Christianity is about death in life and life in death. Paul’s emphasis on the cross had less to do with the theology of atonement they built around it than with the fact of death as a part of life. It’s not just Christ who had to die, but us too. Rilke has a poem about a pregnant mother thinking about giving birth to a mortal being. Dylan has that line about parents afraid to bring children into a world of war. Who wrote how the bell “tolls for thee?”
You are SUCH a writer! Thanks for your grace-filled words.