Four times in only three weeks, I have stood beside grieving people in the final moments before their loved one was lowered into a grave. I used to wonder why my dad's weekly emails or calls always seemed to begin with a litany of his friends who had passed away. I'm beginning to understand a sobering truth. The older you get, the more your contemporaries start to die one by one. It has an effect on you, your thinking, your plans for the future, your mood. When you are a follower of Christ, you might wonder a lot about what heaven will be like, but you don't have to wonder about your eternal destiny. That has already been decided. If we're honest with ourselves, though, it's the PROCESS of dying that most of us fear.
When a loved one has breathed their last breath on earth, though, much remains to be done by their loved ones before their burial and immediately after. I was reminded of a few of those decisions and the processes involved as I watched from a distance lately ("distance" in this case means that the deceased was a friend but not a member of my immediate family).
Maybe it's just a Southern thing, but that's the first need many of us want to cover for the family in those early hours and days. Families begin to gather in one location. Relatives from out of town begin to arrive. No one feels like cooking. No one really wants to "go out in public." If it's a really close family member, you think you'll never be able to swallow a single bite, but you still want to know that everyone else is fed. And, I'm glad to say that most churches start planning a time to "feed the family" before or after the funeral service. That's a very important ministry. I've been ministered to in this way many times. I've helped in the ministry, and I've watched as others have appreciated this service. For one family recently, it was the first time inside a church in many years, and I prayed that the meal and the environment would be an attractive, magnetic force for the future.
Casseroles, desserts, charcuterie boards -- it doesn't matter. Food represents care and concern.
One funeral I attended recently was in an ornate sanctuary where a magnificent pipe organ played and a highly-educated minister, who obviously knew the deceased and his family, read the obituary. In another case, there was no funeral other than a graveside service. We stood under a couple of tents as the rain fell around us. The minister didn't appear to know the deceased and mispronounced her name again and again. Somehow, that added to the grief.
Did you know that funeral homes charge BY THE WORD for obituaries now? Well, actually it's probably the newspapers who charge the fee, but the funeral home is the one who sends the bill. In some cases, people stick to the bare necessities, while others want readers to get a sense of who their loved one really was. When my dad died, my siblings and I took the longer obituary route. In his case, it just seemed fitting. People, after all, are so much more than the dates of their birth and death and a list of predecessors and successors.
VISITATIONS, FUNERALS, AND GRAVESIDE SERVICES
I felt so badly for families who buried a loved one during the pandemic. We need each other when we're grieving. Even if we don't say a word, our presence is comforting and vital.
On that subject, I have to commend my pastor. In the case of one funeral I attended, I had been the girl's Sunday School teacher when she was in high school. Once she was out of school and married, she got away from church, but her membership was still at my church. Our pastor had never met her or her family, but I looked up during the graveside service and saw him there, STANDING IN THE POURING RAIN THE WHOLE TIME. His presence then gave him the opportunity to connect with unchurched family members after the service and when the church hosted lunch for the family. Somehow I believe that will make a difference.
I dare you to keep from shedding a tear when "I Can Only Imagine" is played/sung at a graveside. When my mother died, the large choir of which she had been a member sang, "I Am." My dad requested it because mom had raved about how much she loved the anthem every time she came home from rehearsal. To this day, 35 years later, it still brings tears to my eyes when I hear it.
Music moves me. It reaches my soul. The music we select for the celebration services of our loved ones is a reflection of them -- their beliefs, their preferences, their priorities. It's important.
People don't stop grieving when the leftovers of the last casserole go into the trash, when the flowers sent have wilted, or when the last thank you card has been mailed. Instead, that is when the long haul of the grieving process begins to grip them and the realities that life has been forever altered are faced. May I suggest that if you are a close friend of someone who is grieving you check on them often? Give them a chance to talk as much as they want to about the person they've lost. Allow them to cry. And, when you sense it's time, offer a diversion in the form of a lunch date, an evening out, or a short road trip. Do for them what you'd want someone to do for you.
Psalm 34:18 --- "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit."
Matthew 5:4 -- "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
Psalm 147:3 -- "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds."
Psalm 116:1 -- "I love the Lord, because He hears My voice and my supplications."
Psalm 23:4 -- "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."