(This is the third in a series of #bloganuary posts, part of a WordPress blogging challenge for the month of January. Never mind that January is two-thirds gone–I’m going to try to get caught up.)
I spend a lot of time outside of my comfort zone because I’m an introvert, which means that pretty much any time I’m around anyone besides close friends and family (and even then, sometimes), I’m technically not anywhere near my comfort zone. But there are times that qualify for special mention.
As a staff member at a larger church, with media and technology being among my areas of responsibility, I was often called on to be the sound tech at funerals. It was always interesting, and whether I knew the deceased or any of the bereaved family members or not, I treated such events with reverence and did my best to do my job in such a way that the family and the officiating pastor (often not a member of our staff) didn’t have to worry about matters of media technology during the service. And they were emotional times for me, every time. Over the years I got to know several of the staff members of the funeral homes that served our area, and enjoyed catching up with them before and after services. During the course of my time on the church staff, I eventually became an ordained pastor myself, and when one of the funeral directors learned of this, he asked if I would be interested in officiating funerals in situations where the family wanted a church funeral, but didn’t really have a relationship with any church. I was happy to do this.
It didn’t bother me that I was officiating funeral services for a deceased person I had never met–these were families who, for whatever reason, even though they didn’t have strong religious leanings themselves, believed that it was important, either to them or to the deceased family member, that the funeral be officiated by a pastor rather than a funeral home director. I saw such times as wonderful opportunities to comfort the bereaved, to help the families and friends of the deceased in the first steps of the grieving process, and to help them see the death of their loved one in a spiritual context, and to know that there was a God loved them and cared for them in the midst of their loss.
On one such occasion, I received the call from the funeral home director, who asked me to officiate a service on a certain day, but that the family members involved all lived out of town or in other states, and that they would not be able to come to town until a day or two before the funeral service. I was fine with that–I figured I could meet with them as late as the day before and gather the information I would need to put the service together. “But,” he continued, “they do have one rather unusual request.” As it turned out, the man was to be cremated before any of the family could come to town, but they asked if the officiating pastor could perform whatever the Methodist version of “last rites” was, since their father had attended a Methodist church at some point in his life. I explained that there really wasn’t any Methodist ritual along those lines, but the funeral director indicated it was important to them that this took place before the cremation, and that none of them would be able to be present for such a ceremony, and would I be willing to do something to honor this request.
I thought about it for a few moments before I said, “Sure–I’ll come up with something,” which clearly put the funeral director’s mind at ease. He suggested a date for me to come and perform the desired ceremony, and I arranged to be there. In the days that followed I found some prayers in the Book of Common Prayer that I thought suited the occasion, wrote up a brief ceremony of prayers and committal of the body, and on the appointed day I put on my coat and tie and showed up at the funeral home.
The funeral director greeted me in the lobby and took me through a hallway to a room which I presumed to be the room in which bodies were prepared for burial. It was a little like an operating room. Along one wall there was a set of folding doors, the sort you normally see on a bedroom closet, and when he opened them, there was the body of the deceased in question, lying on a platform, with a sheet covering all but his head. He told me that the body was on a lift that would later be lowered to the basement crematorium for final, um, disposition, and that I could go ahead and proceed with my ceremony, and that he would be in the next room. I was to let him know when I was finished with–I’ll call him Mr. Jones.
I’m not sure what I expected to find–a casket, perhaps, but I did not expect that I would be standing inches away from Mr. Jones’ body, alone in a room that was more than a little creepy. But this was the task before me, and though I contemplated simply reading the ceremony silently, I thought that Mr. Jones deserved to have the prayers spoken aloud over his body. So with as much solemnity and reverence as I could muster under the somewhat strange circumstances, I prayed over Mr. Jones’ body, awkwardly made the sign of the cross over him, bowed my head and took a minute of silence, thinking about the family that wasn’t there, and then called the funeral director’s name.
There was not one thing comfortable about that zone for me except this: I sensed that in the presence of a dead body, prayer is always an appropriate thing to do, and I knew that what I had done would somehow comfort the family, and in particular, the man’s eldest son, with whom I had spoken on the phone a couple of days earlier. A few days later, when I finally was able to meet with the son and speak with him about his dad’s life the day before then funeral service, I gave him a copy of the committal ceremony I had put together, and he was extremely grateful, even visibly moved. He was not a religious person, but he needed to know that his dad’s body had somehow been blessed before cremation.
Comfort zones are not always the best place to be.