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The Last Word

The Last Word

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.

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Reid Morgan

So that there is no confusion the Masonic Fraternity has no funeral service that is in and of itself complete. It is only complete as it is rendered along with the proper burial office of one’s church. If Masonry has its own and separate funeral service then it could considered to be a “religion” which it is most defiantly not. Having said that I believe that one’s church is to have the final regardless as Torey says in the above piece. My perspective is not only that of a priest of the church but also as the Past Master of a Masonic Lodge. So in the response where someone is only having Masonic graveside rites the lodge has done the family a great disservice.

Bill Dilworth

I share Jeffrey’s discomfort with some of the Easter aspects of the BCP’s Burial Office. I think that Western culture in general does everything possible to sanitize death and prevent people from thinking about it very much, and I’m afraid ECUSA shares some of that attitude. Ironically, we cribbed the anthem Jeffrey quotes from the liturgy of a Church that, I think, does a pretty good job at not sugar coating death, the Orthodox. Probably it has a different effect in the context of an open-casket funeral, black vestments, solemn chanting – less like a denial if the reality of death.

Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

Fr. Lightcap,

With humility and as one who has buried many beloved to myself (as have most of us of a certain age), I would suggest that the primary concern here should be compassion, not having the last word. If the fraternal and military rites give more comfort to the bereaved than our own prayerbook rites, this will not be remedied by any desire to have the last word.

In personal experience, my father had a Christian burial with military honors and also a Masonic funeral on the evening before the funeral service. I found all of them moving. In truth, I think that some of the prayers of the Masonic rite are better than our prayerbook ones. I respect those who believe in a literal resurrection of the dead and conscious life beyond the grave. Not all persons who call themselves Christians believe this. I have at times found the ALLELUIA ALLELUIA ALLELUIA!!!!!!! to be more than I can bear at the times of death. Our Lord did not cry “ALLELUIA” as he died but “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me.” We need to let the “dark side” of grief have its equal place. “Hammering it home” with the “last word” helps no one, I think. This is, of course, my own probably heretical opinion.

John-Julian,OJN

There is another issue that I encountered more than once in small town burials: that is some self-appointed evangelist stepping up and preaching to the crowd after the graveside service is over and the priest has left. I learned early that it was necessary to remain at the graveside until the crowd had dispersed….

Dennis Bosley

It’s a mistake to make pastoral office like burial all about who’s in charge. It’s important to be as generous as possible.

Dennis Bosley

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