A Sad Trip Home: A Sacred Journey

We recently got back from a sad trip indeed … a trip back to my hometown … the kind of trip that most of us take eventually. A trip home to bury a loved one. We recently got back from a sad trip indeed … a trip back to my hometown … the kind of trip that most of us take eventually. A trip home to bury a loved one, lost to the family, creating a vacuum in the family structure that causes all the members in that tribal unit to feel a bit off-kilter – off-balance for awhile. In this case we buried my only brother – Joe – and I was the one to officiate at the funeral and interment, being the only clergy in the family and the one needed to provide the necessary rites. A very sad time … for my sister-in-law, Joe’s wife of 60-plus years … a sad time for my niece and nephew … and a solemn occasion for the extended family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as old friends of ours who gathered.

So I went home to the little town of my childhood: Bremen, Indiana, just southeast of South Bend – home of the Fighting Irish. Home. As Christian Morganstern said, “home is not where you live, but where they understand you.” (Found in Mary Gordon’s Home: What It Means and Why It Matters, p. 95. See lead photo.) A place where you feel at home … where you belong. Martin Copenhaver has this lovely way of putting it:

A home is so much more than a house. A home is a place, or a dream of a place, where you feel uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel that you belong.

Some of us have an actual place like that, a place that comforts and enfolds, a place where we can seek refuge from the world and are refreshed to face the world again. Whether you live alone or with others, it is a place where you don’t have to explain everything. It is a place where you can be yourself, for better or worse, and usually it is both. And, in the home of our dreams, at least, it is a place where you feel accepted, loved even. There are not many places like that in the world, and we all need such a place. (Martin Copenhaver, The Gospel in Miniature, p. 169.)
And I have such a place: My old childhood home where I grew up and then left at age 17 for college, and never really returned again except to visit. I have such a home now too – one I’ve lived in happily for the most part for 21 years. But my small home town of Bremen, Indiana – with two stop lights to its name – and the beloved memories of my childhood – are indelibly imprinted in my brain. And so I went home again … to bury my brother.

In my last blog I mentioned the writings of Thomas Lynch – the essayist, poet, and funeral director who writes beautifully about life and death. In his latest book, Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living (see second photo below), Lynch writes of dealing with our dead from his vantage point. On pages 134 through 138 he lists four essential elements for a funeral. The first has to do with the actual presence of the deceased whose life on earth has just ended. He writes, “ours is a species that deals with death … the human condition … by dealing with the dead (the thing itself, in the flesh, the corpse).” The deceased person being ushered out of this life – in casket or urn.

His second essential element for proper dealing with our dead is that there should be a gathering of those living who care about the passing of the one who has died: “A death happens to both the one who dies and to those who survive the death and are affected by it. If no one cares, if there is no one to mark the change that has happened … no one to name and claim the loss and the memory of the dead, then the dead assume the status of Bishop Berkeley’s tree falling noiselessly in the forest … it never was.”

Lynch’s third and fourth elements for dealing with the dead are, I think, linked. A funeral should accomplish the disposition of the dead. “It is by getting the dead where they need to go that the living get where they need to be.” Whether the deceased is buried, cremated, entombed, or scattered on sacred ground, this physical act does provide closure for the living, with our “participation in it remedial, honorable, maybe even holy.” The final element to such an undertaking is for the officiant – whoever is leading the rituals – to provide some narrative, some attempt at meaning to this death that has occurred and will occur to every one of us in due time as a fact of our human condition. A good funeral includes some “effort toward an answer, however provisional, of those signature human questions about what death means for both the one who has died and those to whom it matters.”

If the reader of this blog will permit me one more long quote from Lynch, I can’t resist offering the following beautiful passage:

Our mortality is certain though our faith lays claim to more. The mystery of the resurrection to eternal life is bound inextricably to the certainty of the cross of suffering and death. Indeed, the effort to make sense of it all – the religious impulse – owes to our primeval questions about the nature of death. Save for these uniquely human curiosities about last things and eschatologies and the liturgies we construct to answer them, we would be so much roadkill and windfall, litter and landfill, our names and dates, our lives and deaths unmarked and unremarkable. Like baptisms and nuptials, we do funerals to address the uniquely human questions – what is permanent, what is passing, what is the meaning of life and love, suffering and death. Gladioli and goldfish are not much troubled by these changes. Only humans are.

Copenhaver points out that the writers of scripture do talk about God as a shelter and a comfort, as one who accepts us as we are … our ultimate home. “God is my refuge and my fortress. … Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” And, “Whether the home in which you live is a sanctuary or roiled with conflict, grand or plain, a real place or merely the stuff of dreams, we all have the same gracious home in God. So welcome home.”

And so I went home. To provide the ritual, to welcome those who came to remember at the visitation the evening before … standing beside the closed casket, to give some kind of narrative, my best answer to what lies next beyond the grave, to see the body off to its place of interment. (See last photo.) Mourners were gathered and we did our sad, honorable, and holy duty to one we had loved in life and still love in death. “And even at the grave we make our song. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” And so we sing … as we mourn and as we hope, as we saw my brother home.