Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. – 1 John 4:7-12
Having just returned from my mother-in-law, Chloe’s, burial, I feel the urge to write a funeral service for my loved ones to use when I die. I want it to be a service that will speak in a simple, joyful language about what it meant to me to be in relationship with God.
Nobody at the church Chloe had attended regularly all her adult life knew her any more. She had gone to an assisted living facility thirteen or fourteen years ago – out of the parish’s jurisdiction – out of the hearts of the people worshiping there. No one from her church had kept community with her after she moved to a new part of town and eventually became unable to live on her own. The chaplain from whom she received communion once a week at a Roman Catholic Mass at her nursing home didn’t have a connection with her either. So her daughters, when they begged that she be given a funeral at the church where she had spent so many faithful years, were talking to strangers about a stranger. Fortunately the priest, who was new to the parish, was willing to be hospitable.
Her family has drifted away from the Catholic faith, some to worship in other denominations most away from organized religion all together. So we all arrived at the funeral in more or less the same place: not familiar with the language or the ritual, not familiar with the people putting on the show, but very familiar with Chloe and in need of grieving and saying good bye. The basic elements of the service were meaningful. We prayed for her soul, remembered her life, and saw her body laid to rest. There was a completeness and a finality to the proceedings. I think we all left knowing that the important things had happened.
But I went back to where Rosean and I were staying feeling like there was a burr lodged under my breastbone. Something had been missing, something I needed to capture through reviewing the burial service of my own tradition. I opened the online Book of Common Prayer and began to read.
I finally found the seeds of what I was looking for in the Commendation. Perhaps I should have looked there to start with; that’s where the prayer is that always makes me weep. Even when I’m just typing it up for a worship bulletin, these words choke me up: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant N. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.”
What was missing from Chloe’s funeral was the story of God’s love affair with her. The intimate bond between the two of them, a bond of complete acceptance, was barely acknowledged. God’s regard for the particular human being Chloe was, God’s desire that she live out all that she was meant to be, becoming fully the wonderful, powerful, and, yes, sometimes trying woman she was created to be, were hardly mentioned. And God’s warm embrace at the end of her life as God claimed her beyond death was only briefly touched upon. God loved Chloe passionately. And Chloe loved God. Now the two are together, face to face, in whatever inconceivable state of being we arrive at when we leave this world.
I hope that my friends and relatives will hear the words and have the experiences at my funeral that show the deep love between me and God. My joy at belonging, my passionate, ongoing conversation, the humor and the profound, boundless caring with which God has dealt with me need to be unveiled there. What better opportunity to witness to these things than at a funeral? Like weddings, burials are some of the few times when many people still go to church.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Chloe. Acknowledge, we beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. As you do with us all. Amen.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado