One of those calls came the other day, this time for a lady who was a member but had moved away many years ago (long before I came on board as a canon). And so this morning I went out to the cemetery vested in my cassock, surplice and stole to offer prayers and words of comfort, and to commit to the ground the body of a woman I have never met.
It can feel a bit awkward doing this service not knowing the deceased or any of the family. That's yet another reason why I give thanks for The Book of Common Prayer. For regardless of who the deceased may have been in this life, or whether or not the officiant knew him/her, the prayers in the burial office always hit the mark. And that's because (as the Prayer Book puts it): "The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection" (BCP, p. 507). The risen Jesus is the true focus, not death or dead bodies, and not even how wonderful (or not) the deceased may have been.
And so I said the prayers. I read a passage from Romans, the 23rd Psalm, and a passage from the Gospel according to John. And before the committal, I offered the following brief homily (which I'm reconstructing from memory):
We are gathered here on this beautiful September morning with heaviness in our hearts. Even when it's not unexpected, and even when someone is ready, the death of a loved one hurts. It's painful to be separated from someone we love. And so we gather to grieve the loss of N.
But we also gather in thanksgiving for a life well-lived. N. touched the lives of countless persons - family, friends, and strangers - with her love and kindness. Only God can fully know the many ways that her life was a blessing to so many others.
And we also gather in thankful expectation for the future. For the truth at the heart of our faith is that for all who die in the Lord, life is changed, not ended.
The scripture readings we heard speak directly to that truth. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul makes the staggering claim that nothing in all of creation - not even death, which seems so final - can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. That love is eternal. And it is stronger than the grave.
We also have the reassurance and the promise from the lips of our Lord himself that he will never drive away anyone who comes to him. Anyone who believes in him has eternal life. And he will raise that person to incorruptible life and joy on the last day.
And so we know that N. is now in the closer presence of the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. She has been reunited with her husband and with all those who have gone before. And we have the sure and certain hope that all of us who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus will one day be reunited with loved ones. We, too, shall be raised to new, incorruptible life in a world that knows nothing of disease, death, or decay.
And so we give thanks to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
I have to hope and trust that, by God's grace, these words were sufficient for the family and friends who travelled from far and wide to bury a much-loved mother, grandmother, sister, and friend.
One thing I do know for sure about this morning's service: in ways that I cannot fully articulate, I walked away from it feeling renewed in my calling as a priest. Even though I did not know the family (and they were most gracious to me before and after the service), it felt right to be there. And my own faith in the reality of Jesus' bodily resurrection and the future "completion of God's purpose for the world" was strengthened (BCP, p. 861). That is a true blessing!