Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Posted by on 09.23.09 | 4 Comments
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I have this vague memory that we have discussed this on the VTH before, so stop me if you have heard this (no wait, you can’t, I am blogging) but recent events here at the Cathedral in Spokane have led me to think once again about my funeral. I enjoy this by the way; it is very comforting, encouraging and even relaxing to ponder the way I want to celebrate my death. We have had a couple of really good and meaningful funerals here the past month, and I am more and more appreciating how important it is not only to reflect on our own personal mortality, but to enjoy and celebrate it, and to share it with good friends. There is nothing that is in the least morbid about it, though certain of my aquaintances disagree with me about that. On the contrary, refusing to think about being dead is not a way to enjoy life. It is rather a way to deny an ineluctable fact of life. Similarly, refusing to plan for this once-in-a-life-time opportunity doesn’t just put a burden on the folks left behind, it wastes a chance to make exactly the kind of statement you want to make, and you have the added bonus of not having to deal with any negative reactions.

This is undoubtedly why by far the best funerals I have done were those planned by the people whose funeral it was. What these folks taught me is that music is really critical to a wonderful funeral. When it works best it develops a theme, it is varied, and it sounds like the person whose life and death is being celebrated. Don MacBeth, who died many years ago, did this absolutely brilliantly with his funeral, and it made the whole thing, amidst the very sadness of his death, a wonderful experience.

That is the second most important thing about a funeral, that sadness. There is a lot of sadness at most funerals, and we don’t help ourselves by declaring that we want to focus only on the happy parts. On the contrary, that effort often has the ironic effect of making people feel worse; I have seen that a lot. There is a lot of value in remembering the good times, but those left behind need a chance to deal with the loss, and a place to admit it is a big and painful loss. After all, sorrow is the price of love. We don’t cry over people we haven’t loved; we don’t mourn those we don’t care about. And so for the sake of that love we need to understand that we must notice and even celebrate our sadness, celebrate our pain because these things are a valuable part of being human. When we do that kind of celebrating well we are then free to celebrate the other side of life, the joy of having known, and loved and learned from whoever is no longer here, and won’t be ever again. And we have the chance as well to celebrate the fact that we really are “stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon” which all by itself is a most wonderful discovery. We are going back to the garden, sooner or later.

So at my perfect funeral I want to start out with something somber and doleful, maybe even, if I am sufficiently well off, a string octet playing the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony. Part of it sounds very much like a funeral march. Then later as we turn toward from pain to ambiguity we all sing “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead. The image of a “ripple in still water, when there is no pebble tossed or wind to blow” captures for me at least the rather mystic quality of the randomness of creation. There is nothing like the pathos of the last line: “If I knew the way, I would take you home.” But we don’t know the way, at least not for others, and most often not for ourselves, so life remains an enigma for us all, even as we live it. and that is part of what makes it so beautiful. Then as the service moves more deeply into the life of faith in that transcendent dimension of existence which we can only intuit, only glimpse, but never capture, never control, comes a Vaughn Williams piece, “Come my way” with its lyrics that call out to the One who has “such a truth that ends all strife, such a life as killeth death.” Finally at the end we sing “All Praise to Thee” a hymn based upon the Pauline hymn in Philippians. It ends with the single word “Alleluia.” I have a couple of other things to work in as well, like “The Water is wide” and the old Cat Stevens song the chorus of which goes “Lord my body has been a good friend, but I won’t need it when I reach the end.” There has to be a place for a line like that.

So, thanks for reading, if you have, and have a good time planning your funeral.

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