If you have any doubt as to the uniqueness of our species among all those which populate the planet; you need only stand by an open grave and watch a family place the remains of a loved one into the earth. This is what makes humanity different. We grieve, feel loss, and mourn the deaths of those we love. It’s been this way since we made the jump from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens. Thousands of years ago, before our ancestors decided we needed to explain why we were here and developed primitive cosmologies to understand what happens after we die; all we knew how to do was mourn. Grief came to us instinctively; as did our desires for shelter, food, and relationships.
I was reminded of these observations during the Committal portion of the first of the two funerals I’ll lead this week. Twenty family members and friends gathered in Thomas’ yard by a small flowerbed. Here, his ashes would be interred for eternity. Once Thomas’ son in law secured the box that contained his remains, each member of the family was invited to place a single flower in the grave.
I said the words I usually say at moments like this. The greatest testimony of the Resurrection was the testimony of the witnesses. Though this moment seems final, you now become witnesses to Thomas’ post –resurrection life. We make resurrection a reality. Go and tell his story. I stepped back.
Chad placed the box in the location they’d prepared. Pam, Thomas’ wife, came with the first rose. Slowly, as they felt ready, the others walked forward. It was late afternoon, the sun was setting, and the exhaustion among the family was palpable. For what seemed like an eternity, they wept and looked into the dark sandy hole, where a simple wooden box contained the remains of a son, brother, husband, grandfather, and friend.
It was then I realized we’ve been here before. We might as well be on the Siberian tundra thirty thousand years ago, mourning the death of a nomadic chief. Nothing has changed. Death, grief, and mourning looks no different today than it did when we first discovered our humanity. Loss feels same today as it did to our earliest ancestors. This felt real. Life had ended, death was being confronted, and the void of eternity was in a flowerbed by our feet. Somehow a connection was made between the living and the dead.
Unlike the service I’d led a couple hours earlier, where there seemed to be no connection to the larger issues of life, death, or eternity. We read scripture, poems, and sang hymns. I’m not sure how that helped anyone. I’m saying this as the person who wrote and put the service together.
I saw the glazed looks on the faces of the grieving family and among the packed congregation. I stuck to the script. I wondered, as I often do at funerals, what do these words actually say about life, death, and hope? I think I’ve read them so many times they’ve become lost in translation. I looked out at the congregation and I was certain no one was listening. They pretend to listen because they know, “this is what he says at every funeral”. I do lots of funerals. Many of them can probably repeat my lines as well as I can. It’s true.
The flowerbed was different. I had a front row seat as sixty thousand years of human history, evolution, and theology found its best common denominator. God was present in the liturgy of time, actions, tears, and silence. God was working in this dark moment despite my best efforts to explain Jesus preparing places in a mansion, picnics by still waters, and resurrection appearances. It is nice to be reminded that God was part and parcel of the human story even before we felt the need to call God a Christian, Jew, Hindu, or Muslim. If God is anything, God is before. God is in the rituals we can’t define as a “liturgy”; whether it’s because our ancestors were still learning to speak or we are overwhelmed with grief.
It was a blessing to see God, unfiltered and unplugged, at work, without the labels we feel hell bent to apply. I was humbled by the opportunity to watch God be God.
Richard Lowell Bryant