Death is really on my mind lately.
Sunday evening, my fiancé took me to a cemetery in his old neighborhood so he could pray for an important housing decision to turn in his favor. Like many people, he feels more comfortable praying among the dead than at a church. It was a gorgeous, peaceful evening to walk among the monuments and think about the nature of Life & its nemesis, Death. I stopped by this stunning memorial to a three year old that had died over a century ago and I was captivated by it. I left a small stone there.
I would have been perfectly fine if that was the last time I would contemplate human mortality for a long while, but it turned out to only be the beginning. The next morning, I awoke to a text message that a dear friend had passed away. A few minutes later, my fiancé called to tell me that the decision he had been praying for had not gone as planned. In the midst of his disappointment, I had to tell give him the news that Will had died. And with that, Death became the focus of the entire week.
In my role as a minister, I’ve done the music for a lot of funerals and memorial services over the years. This aspect of the job is one of the main reasons I stay in the position even though many of my beliefs are evolving to be at odds with the culture and theology of my church’s denomination. I’ve reconciled these differences in opinion by focusing on the fact that by staying in my position at the church, I have the opportunity to help a lot of people at some of the most vulnerable stages of their lives…such as losing loved ones. For as long as I am able to do this without personally violating my principal values, I think the good I can do there outweighs the theological differences that arise from being an esoteric Christian, rather than a literal one. (Denominational leaders would disagree with me there, but that’s where the true definition of being “occult” comes in). I’ve always thrived at helping people work through difficult emotions (people have told me I’m not great at being celebratory and I tend to agree.) But funerals… well, for whatever reason, I get funerals. It’s my honor and privilege to serve the families. I’ve almost always felt comfortable with these services. Almost always.
You see, the majority of the funerals that I’ve ended up singing at are for very elderly folks that have gone to church for most of their lives, and have spent the last 10-15 years at a nursing home, in poor health, praying that Dear Jesus would come and take them home to streets of gold beyond the crystal sea sooner rather than later. Sometimes I know them personally; sometimes I only know of them through their family members, who are often experiencing a sense of relief from being released from the financial and emotional burdens of caring for an elderly parent (along with the crushing guilt that accompanies that relief). We gather to sing their favorite hymns, tell stories of their finer qualities, share a few laughs and tears and talk about what we think “heaven” will be like. Sometimes it feels more like a family reunion, with relatives that have scattered across the country coming together in one place for the first time in many years. They pose for group pictures of all the grandkids and cousins in front of the church, because without the patriarch/matriarch of the family to give them a reason to gather, who knows when the next time they will all be together will be?
But then there’s the other kind of funeral…
My Dead Friend
Will was in his early forties when he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer that eventually spread to his lungs and brain. When he was diagnosed he was a strong, handsome man in his prime, father of three beautiful daughters and two adopted sons. He was a bit of a hero in his community, a longtime firefighter who donated his spare time to travel to third world countries to build hospitals and schools. He once gave me and my ex-husband a great deal on vehicle with a no-interest loan because we were in a tight place financially and needed reliable transportation. A year later, when my husband cheated on me, left town and took the car with him, well….he offered to “take care of it” for me if I wanted him to. He was that sorta guy that you could just count on, no matter what. I remember when he was first diagnosed and the church gathered around him and prayed for his healing in a desperate united front against the disease. The doctors had guessed he had less than two years to live. Will survived for six.
It was painful to walk alongside him and his family as he went from this vibrant, healthy man to a swollen and weakened cancer patient. The church prayed for his healing again and again. My friend and I did reiki on him. Every time a miraculous healing would seem to occur for a few months, the cancer seemed to return three-fold in some sort of dark vengeance. Last July, I played at his daughter’s wedding during what had been a long term remission of the cancer. I remember being so inspired by the symbolism of the lovely, smiling bride, carrying a bouquet of brilliant sunflowers down the aisle beside her father, as I played “Here Comes the Sun“. We believed the long, cold, lonely winter was finally over for them, and that brighter days had arrived. No one expected that a year later, she would be placing sunflowers by her father’s grave.
Week of Death
I needed a miracle to find a replacement at my 2nd job so I could help with Will’s funeral. I dreaded this task as we are understaffed, all underpaid and everyone is burned out. No one wants to come in on Saturdays, and I already needed to find someone to cover a Saturday shift for me for a wedding the following week. I came in to talk to my supervisor on Monday morning and she checked the schedule. “Huh…well it must have been meant to be…” she said, “I accidentally scheduled two people for your shift that day. Guess someone’s got your back up there.”
Three days before the funeral, we had an intense day of work at the church. Staff meeting was long and excruciating. Going through the details of the memorial service was emotionally taxing and stressful. Funerals are difficult enough to plan when you don’t know the person, as you are really working against the clock to prepare something beautiful and honoring in a very short amount of time. But preparing a funeral for a beloved friend is a whole different kind of beast. And this service had its own complications: Since Will was a first responder, there were logistical concerns for the honors that needed to be bestowed, not to mention that over 500 people were expected to attend which would nearly max out our capacity. As if this wasn’t enough to deal with, that day I found out that a fellow pastor had been spreading some nasty rumors about me after seeing me eating breakfast at 6am with my fiancé and looking “disheveled.” No, it wasn’t what it looked like, but who really cares if it had been?
That day, we were also dealing with the aftermath of a terribly divisive sermon from a general superintendent at a district ordination service that threatened to set things back 50 years or so in the matter of racial/gender equality and other issues. Needless to say all these things were compounding to chip away at my mental state. At 7pm, I met with the couple who was getting married the next week (who had been avoiding our phone calls for weeks for some reason). They were an hour late, so the meeting ran long into the night. As I was walking out of the building to finally leave for the day – emotionally, mentally and physically exhausted – my lead pastor comes to me and introduces me to a very sunburnt woman in dirty clothes, carrying a huge backpack with all her worldly possessions in it. “I need to you to take her to the closest hotel and get her a room for the night on your church credit card.” I got her a hot meal and she complained because it was was McDonalds and not Sonic (which wasn’t open). Then she complained about the smell of first room I got her, so I stayed a bit longer to get her moved into a non-smoking room. I tried hard to be gracious.
I finally collapsed into bed at about 2am and said to myself, “This is ministry. Are you sure you still want to do this?” I was dreading Saturday.
Two nights before the funeral, I sat on the patio in the dark did a meditation on death that I had found in my SimpleHabit mediation app. It was about thirty minutes long, and after the initial giggles I had over the instructor’s voice having the resonance one would expect from the undertaker in an old-timey western, I found the experience quite pleasant and peaceful. I wondered if this was a taste of the peace that Will was experiencing now. That gave me a bit of comfort and I hoped I was right.
During the meditation, I felt like I received a revelation about death. This is actually the second “Death lesson” that I’ve received…the first one happened shortly after another period of death/rebirth….my divorce. I consider these messages to be an important part of my alchemical progression, and I hope to write about them more extensively someday. But for now, I’ll tell you that I realized that in death, you don’t get to take thoughts and memories with you, at least not in the same sense that we experience them in this incarnation. I realized that those things are aspects of the physical world…chemical and electrical processes of brain matter and we don’t take any of that with us. I think that’s what the myth of the River Lethe is trying to say when it describes drinking the waters that make you forget. However, thoughts and memories do make an impact on our soul and echo in our consciousness (which I believe is independent of physical matter). That soul growth and the impact of those thoughts and lessons and memories is the part that really counts, because unlike the physical body, the soul continues on.
The day before the funeral, I woke up and watched Patton Oswalts’ latest comedy special, Annihilation with breakfast. I chose to watch it because I needed to laugh and I love Patton Oswalt, but I wasn’t really thinking about what major life event in Oswalt’s life he would be talking about in his special. I think that subconsciously, a part of me did realize that he would likely be spending a good amount of time discussing his wife’s sudden and tragic death in 2016 (spoiler alert: he did), and that same part of me realized that I needed a comedian-shaman like Oswalt to help guide me through the process of laughing at death too (spoiler alert: I did). It felt good to laugh for the first time in days.
Kansas in August is excruciatingly hot and humid, and Friday was no exception. Walking to the church that morning, I passed trash bins full of rotting food that were lined up at the curb for pick-up. Smells like death, I thought. When I was in high school, a woman in my apartment building shot herself and no one noticed she was missing for 3 weeks. My mother was the landlady, and the one who recieved a phone call from the downstairs neighbor, who for medical reasons (and because the universe is an ironic place) has no sense of smell. She explained to my mother that she’d had friends over for dinner, but the friends couldn’t remain in the apartment for even a few minutes because of the terrible smell from upstairs. My mom was the one who discovered the body. After the crime scene cleaners had done their job, the apartment still smelled. My family replaced the carpet, painted, cleaned every inch of the place and it still reeked. We kept the windows open and fans running for several days in a row. The thing about that smell is that once you’ve experienced it, you never forget it. Walking to church past the rotting garbage, I thought about how Will, as a first responder, would have been familiar with that smell also. He had chosen to be cremated.
At the church, I met with the family and we began to set up for the memorial service. They brought pictures, badges, trophies and other memorabilia of his life to display in the narthex. They had mounted some of his fire gear on wooden plaques….they seemed like powerful holy relics to me. Police officers and officers from the sheriff’s department came to discuss details of the service with us since there would be an honor guard and a few hundred law enforcement offices and first responders would be there. It struck me as the Captain was speaking to us that we had something in common: these funeral rites were something that he had done enough times that it had become a routine practice for him. But the emotion in his voice as he addressed the widow and her daughters betrayed that it doesn’t really get any easier with familiarity, especially when it’s someone that means a lot to you.
I shared a moment with the widow as we were decorating the front of the sanctuary. I asked her if she would like to use our white pillars to display the flowers that would be delivered. “Hopefully there won’t be many” she said, “I asked people to donate money rather than flowers…I just can’t stand the thought of bringing them home, only to watch them wither away and die too.”
From that point on, I kept getting overcome with emotions at the weirdest things. Our church secretary arrived with grocery bags full of kleenex boxes. When I saw them stacked up in a pile, waiting to be placed at the end of each pew, I started to cry. The gravity of this loss was really starting to hit me hard.
After the family left for the day, the other singer arrived to practice with me for a duet that the family had requested. This singer has been a good friend of mine since I was a child, one of the first people to encourage me to pursue ministry as a vocation. He had been the worship pastor when I was in high school, I had been his intern and to this day, I consider him a mentor. When most of the folks in the church were trying to run me out for voicing my doubts, he was the one that would always say, “God is big enough to handle you questioning his existence,” and encouraged me not to run from those crises of faith.
He asked me how I was holding up. I was honest with him. I wasn’t too worried about our duet, but the family had also asked me to sing a solo….a song that Will had loved. The lyrics were so heartbreaking to me…the first verse speaks of asking God to heal someone, expecting a miracle and then having to deal with the fact that the miracle never came. How was I supposed to sing those lyrics in front of his mourning wife and children without sobbing in empathetic tears when that’s exactly what they were going through? I told him that out of the 20 times that I had practiced the song, I hadn’t yet made it through the entire thing once without getting too choked up to sing…not even once. Not just sniffles but full on ugly crying. Sometimes I would only get a few words into the song before the crying started. My big fear, I told him, is that I’ll get up to sing this song and end up standing on stage for 3 minutes crying uncontrollably, never being able to get it together long enough to convey even a fraction of what the song meant.
My mentor didn’t judge me for it. In fact, he related that he had once googled “How to not cry while singing” because he had faced the same problem many times. I asked him if he had found anything helpful and he just kinda chuckled. The most helpful advice he had found was to practice the song so many times that you get all the emotion out ahead of time, but that wasn’t really an option with the funeral less than 24 hours away. “Maybe try focusing on the vowel sounds, consonants and tone of the words, rather than what they mean. We spend so much time in music ministry trying to communicate the meaning of the lyrics in our musical delivery…but you don’t need to do that. The music will speak for itself.” That was actually very helpful advice.
After rehearsal, my fiancé arrived at the church. “I knew you were down so I have two surprises for you,” he said. The first was a beautiful rose quartz heart on a gold chain to wear around my neck. It was perfect, with a soft comforting energy in the stone and I was taken aback by what a thoughtful gift it was. For the second surprise, I had to get in the car and accompany him on a little “adventure”. I’ll admit that I almost said no. I was so tired and stressed and wanted badly to go home and collapse into bed again. But I trusted him.
We drove for a full hour out into the country. I could feel the tension falling away from me as the temperature cooled, the noise of the city disappeared, and the air became fresh and sweet from summer crops. Just before sunset, we arrived at a small farmhouse with a barn and field out back. “Where are we?” I asked.
”This place belongs to an old friend of my Dad’s. I used to work for her in the summers when I was younger. Tonight I called her and asked if I could bring you here for a little therapy.” A sweet older lady came out to the car and greeted us both with hugs and gushed over how much my fiancé had changed over the years. She told us to go ahead to the barn… “they” were waiting for us.
“Who is they?” I asked my fiancé. He just smiled.
A few tiny fluffy kittens tumbled out of the barn to greet us and of course I was all over them immediately. “That’s not the surprise, those are just farm cats” he laughed. What the hell could be better therapy than happy, fluffy kittens? I wondered.
I walked into the barn and there they were…four beautiful quarter horses.
We stayed there with the wonderful creatures until long after the sun had gone down and I immediately understood why horses are used as therapy animals. It was such a sacred healing moment for me to be there with them, touching their skin, letting them smell me, watching them eat and drink and play. If there’s something very striking to me about horses, it is the powerful life force that emanates from them.
By the time I finally crawled into my bed, I felt grounded, calm, powerful and ready to face Saturday.
Celebration of Life
I have never seen so many people in our church as I did at Will’s funeral. It was a testament to what a man he was that so many people came to honor his memory. For the visitation, there was no casket, but the family stood at the front of the church while a huge receiving line circled around the sanctuary to offer their condolences. I watched as this incredible family stood there graciously for over two hours while everyone came to them. An introvert’s nightmare, I thought.
My boss, the lead Pastor, kept everyone’s spirits up by cracking jokes while we worked to make the church a hospitable place for all the mourners. Not everyone appreciated his humor in the moment, but I know the man well enough to know that is how he deals with difficult situations and emotions. He’s the king of dad jokes.
When the service finally started, 500 plus people were packed tightly into the pews, shoulder to shoulder. Again, this is August in Kansas, and our lil’ air conditioner system was doing its gosh-darned best to cool down the high-ceilinged sanctuary with hot spotlights pouring down on the the front platform where I was seated next to two other pastors. As I sang my first song, sweat was dripping down my legs and I wondered if anyone would think I was peeing myself. I was already starting to get choked up, but this was a hymn that the entire congregation was singing, so I was able pull back off the mic and hide the shakiness of my voice within the voices of all the people that had gathered to honor Will’s life. It wasn’t really about me anyway, we needed to hear the sound of that mighty chorus of people that had come to support the family and mourn. We then read from Isaiah 40, the 23rd Psalm and the part of Revelation that talks about the resurrection of the body. My mentor and I sang our duet…it went well, but I could hear a shakiness in his voice that I was not accustomed to hearing. As an empathetic cryer, I was silently praying the entire time please don’t let him cry, because then I will completely lose it.
Two firemen from the department spoke about Will. Then two men from the church got up and spoke about him. They both cried. I was crying too, and thankful that I had opted to just wear a little eyeshadow instead of dark eyeliner and mascara as usual. I looked down at my program to see how much longer until my solo…the one I was worried about getting through. Two things were left before my song…remembrances by Will’s brother and his widow. My god, I realized, I have to follow that? How the hell? There’s no way…
By the end of the brother’s speech, everyone was crying. He had trouble making it through his notes and the widow came up on the stage to stand beside him and put her hand on his back. I was in awe of her strength. Both of the pastors beside me were sniffling. The widow then spoke. She cried through her entire speech, but her voice was strong. Her youngest daughter had buried her face into the shoulder of the young man beside her and was sobbing. The widow pointed to the spot in the church that Will sat every Sunday and my heart broke to think I would never see him there in his wheelchair again. Every muscle in my body was tense and shaking. Not only was I emotionally distraught, but I was also now incredibly nervous. I wouldn’t just be crying in front of my church friends and family, but I realized that the likelihood of ugly crying (to the point of not being able to squeak out even a note of the song) in front of 500 people (most of them strangers) was now very high.
As the widow finished her speech, I started to get up to sing. My lead Pastor stopped me. “I got this” he whispered. He walked to the pulpit and said quite dryly, “I know it is very hot in here today. We are doing our best to cool the building, but its very difficult because there is about a hundred law enforcement officers in here and they are all …packing heat…”
People laughed way harder than that joke warranted, but it instantly released the tension of the room. I realized what he was doing and my heart overflowed with gratitude. The thing about holy men (and women), no matter what their brand of religious doctrine, if they are truly tuned in to The Divine, they are naturally going to be a little better at capturing those kairos moments and doing exactly what is needed for the good of the whole. Pastor cracked a few more terrible dad jokes before telling people that yes, this has already been a long service (an hour and a half at that point) but if anyone deserved the full honors, it was this man. He then introduced me and I got up to sing.
The dad jokes had worked their magic. I had regained my composure enough to sing strong through the first verse. I had worn my reading glasses on stage, because with them on, I could only see a couple of feet in front of me, so there was no chance of making eye contact with any one in the family which would have triggered tears immediately. I made it through almost the entire song with strong and clear voice until the very last chorus. My voice began to waver as I sang the words, “and though my heart is torn…” and I pulled the mic down and stood there in silence as tears streamed down my face. I knew I had made it through enough of the song to do it justice, and it was now okay for me to cry for a moment and share my grief with everyone that was there. I could hear soft crying from several other places in the room and I knew I was not alone. “Amen” echoed a man’s voice from the back. After staying silent for a few moments and just listening to the music, I took a deep breath and managed to sing the final line of the song, though it was barely more than a whisper.
After I sang, the pastor began his sermon, but I didn’t hear it. I had acknowledged the applause, walked off stage, went directly to the restroom and proceeded to vomit everything I had eaten for breakfast. After that violent purge, I stood there shaking and crying uncontrollably as a week’s worth of stress, tension and emotion-stuffing came flooding out of my eyeballs and adrenal glands…the familiar physical symptoms of a full blown panic attack. But these are no stranger to me. I turned on the water in the sink and let it run over my hands for several minutes. I looked at myself in the mirror and repeated, “it’s over now, you did a good job, everything is going to be fine.” I said it three times and felt myself returning to normal. As I left the restroom, two ladies from the church came to me and embraced me. It was healing and I was thankful for their sensitivity to the moment, and to my pain. Having a spiritual family is a wonderful thing when it’s done right, my friends. Unfortunately, that’s pretty rare these days.
I went home after the service and took a long, hot bath. I floated in silence and bubbles for a good long while. My whole body was sore, I realized. I felt like I had run a marathon. I started to watch a movie …Coco (which was excellent and I highly recommend it for a beautiful, symbolic explanation of ancestor veneration). Again, it hit me about half way through the movie that I had subconsciously chosen a story that deals with death in a light-hearted and humorous way. At the end of the day, I felt satisfied that I had done well at honoring Will’s memory and helping his family and community say goodbye. This was confirmed for me the next day when the widow came to me at church and gave me a huge hug. In her eyes, she seemed about twenty years wiser than she had a year ago. She was the most beautiful woman in the world to me in that moment.
“Will loved the music at his service” she said with a brilliant smile.
This is ministry, I thought. I’m sure that this is what I want to do.
Featured Images: “Death by Coffee” by Rose Carpenter, Coffee & Ink on Watercolor paper.
“Maple Hill” “Rose Cross” and other photography by Rose Carpenter ©2018