by Torey Lightcap
In the “Pastoral Offices” section of seminary life, we were given good advice about doing funerals, especially with regard to what happens at the graveside. One of the things I remember most clearly – partly because it came at the end of class – was the following exchange.
“What are we supposed to do about all those groups like the Masons and the military or others who want to do their services at graveside the same time as the church?”
“By and large you’ll end up having to work out how to deal with these things on your own, but about these groups let me say just this: Whatever you do, let the church have the final word.”
In hindsight, it turns out to have been more than a terrible pun from a venerable teacher of liturgy. It was counsel that so far has been quite difficult to keep.
When dealing with groups that desire to present military honors (flags, “Taps,” 21-gun salutes) or Masonic rituals, I have heard the following more times than I can count: “Pastor, you just do your thing, and whenever you’re finished, let us know and we’ll step up.” It’s such a common refrain by now that I know when it’s about to be said.
So common, in fact, that it must have been equally programmed into those groups. You can see the problem. On the outside it seems like the extension of a common courtesy, but to the parties involved … well, everything means something.
The nature of the conflict is clear: we all want to have the final say in the matter – the church’s blessing, the Army’s flag, the Masons’ aprons – but we can’t all have it. By definition, that benefit befalls the one who speaks last in the order of things. The last party to speak or act completes the action at hand with the imprimatur of his or her organization.
All I know is that when I walk away from church on Sundays, the only tune I usually find myself humming is the one from whatever hymn was last sung. When I walk out of a movie theater, I’m generally giving thought to the last few minutes of the film I just saw. When I walk away from a pastoral encounter, I tend to give more weight to the last few things the other person said. Experience is cumulative; what comes after a thing gives further heft and nuance to whatever came before it. The way things are ordered happens to matter. (Imagine being told to “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” just as the service starts.)
And so when we say that what we’re up to is “Christian burial,” it seems we have an obligation to ensure that that’s what it actually is: i.e., Christian, with Jesus and the mystery of the resurrection as both its center and its bookends, taking place within a recognized context that is distinctly and unmistakably an Easter day. Having the last word becomes vital – not necessarily a tussle for power, but a conversation over keeping the integrity of the thing intact.
Does that mean non-church groups aren’t Christian? By no means. But only one – the church – bears the specific imprint of Easter, and only one possesses the pastoral imperative to dispatch the liturgical actions of commending spirits to God and earthly remains to resting places. It is, therefore, difficult to envision such groups coming together in one seamless action and taking up their places in the order of things without considerable consultation. They can’t all come in with the tacit assumption that each will have the last word, but I’ll be darned if that isn’t what happens a lot of the time.
I have had – well, let’s say varying levels of success in explaining why this is important to groups that have become accustomed to having the last word. They want to know why I think I’m in charge; I explain that this is, first of all, a responsibility of the church, and that as the church’s agent in this case, I’m accountable for how it goes. It’s easy to understand that they, too, have taken vows and oaths in support of their various causes, and that if there is protocol to be followed it should be, to the letter – except where the letter of one law conflicts with the letter of another.
That’s the moment where a standard is applied and we must ask, Whose law is most important? And it may be that I’m wrong, but I’d be willing to bet Episcopal Café readers would mostly fall on the side of how the church has ordered the service in order to preserve its integrity – that the Easter acclamations and their Alleluias may be the final word. That’s the standard, at any rate, that I long to have applied in my own case.
That said, I must honestly add that this is a fight I’ve grown tired of having, and have been giving in on more and more the past few years because as I say, it involves considerable consultation you just can’t have at one minute prior to the service. (You can try it, but you’ll end up with people who will later cross the street rather than take the chance of meeting your eyes. I’ll never forget the uniformed man who all but threatened to punch me, “were we not standing in a cemetery.”)
It should come as no shock that the times I have been able to have “considerable consultation,” things went better and no one’s nose was either figuratively or literally put out of joint. These conversations weren’t about winning points. The letter of either law gave way to the spirit of a higher law. People representing organizations that wanted to be a part of a service who heard about my concerns understood them, and I understood theirs. We were able to provide for something that, while perhaps at times a little redundant, held itself together with more cooperative and understanding groups involved. Every solution was a little different.
Those substantial conversations have led me to believe that in general all these groups wish to accomplish is to honor the person who has died. That is itself an honorable desire – that we show gratitude for the life of a friend. As one who officiates at such events and takes his role as officiant with seriousness, I offer that such honor should take place within a wider context of honoring God, who is both the author of life and the conquerer of death.
The Rev. Torey Lightcap is Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sioux City, Iowa and on the adjunct staff of Episcopal Café.