This morning, I watched a livestream of the final committal service for Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle. This took place two days after I led a funeral service for a lady in our community. Two very different people who lived very different lives; each died and was remembered by loved ones through the distinctly human practice of funeral services.
Sometimes people shy away from talking about death and funerals, because those events often evoke painful and difficult feelings among us. Yet I believe that grief can be a good thing (see our recent sermon series called “Good Grief” for reasons why!). Of all the species of life on this planet, we human beings have the most developed and intricate celebrations of life, expressions of grief, and rituals around the deaths of our neighbors. This is important and needs to be respected and acknowledged.
The funeral I led last Friday was for a neighbor whom I didn’t know very well. Just before the service began, someone asked me if it was going to be hard to lead her funeral service. That question caught me off guard a bit, because I don’t (usually) think of funerals as being hard to lead. There is a rhythm, a structure, a method of remembering someone’s life which brings meaning and comfort in the midst of grief. It’s always an honor for me to officiate a funeral service, because it is ultimately one of the most human things we can do.
Each of us, of course, is mortal. Each of us has a birth date, and each of us will have a death date. This reality doesn’t cause me anxiety or fear; it’s just part of life, part of being human, part of belonging to a world that is larger than I am. I understand that the moments of my birth and death are tiny (yet significant!) blips on the timeline of the universe. And from a Christian perspective, I know that my life is secure in the hands of God, and that neither life nor death can separate me from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (See Romans 8:38-39.)
I appreciated two things about the committal service for Queen Elizabeth II. First, I appreciated the pageantry, the synchronization of footsteps, the coordination of so many people in a beautiful and elaborate ritual.
Second, and more importantly, I appreciated the ritual itself: the organ music, the choral music, the hymns, the scripture readings, the prayers, the religious practices. I have been around enough funeral services – especially those in an Episcopalian setting, which is very similar to that of the Church of England – to recognize that the Queen’s service was not really that elaborate or unusual. Yes, the setting was unique, and the attention we all gave it was immense. But the elements of the service itself? They were ultimately very ordinary, very common, very understandable from the perspective of the religious tradition to which Elizabeth belonged.
That’s what I find comforting when I lead funeral services: we participate together in these practices which are ordinary, common, and understandable. The stories of our lives are linked together by common themes of family, scripture, joy, grief, laughter, and tears. Every time we gather for a funeral service, whether for a famous queen or for a local neighbor, we are engaging in an important human practice.
Life is a gift from God. We did not choose to be born, and we generally do not choose to die. Each breath, each sunrise, each victory, each loss is an opportunity to give thanks to God for the gift of life. And each funeral service gives us one more chance to rehearse God’s story of life and death. In Jesus, we believe that the story doesn’t end with death but with life eternal, with resurrection, with hope.
Maybe that’s why I find funerals meaningful: they point us toward our need for hope, and toward God, who is the source of hope. Come to think of it, hope, like grief, is a distinctly human experience, too, isn’t it?