Priests and ministers get calls from the local funeral home all the time. Someone has died. They may have been Methodist or Lutheran or Episcopalian, whatever the denomination of your church, but that’s the only, tenuous connection. Would you come and do a service?
I walked into the funeral home and met the two daughters. I took a moment to look at all the pictures displayed around the room, stopped to pray at the closed coffin. I met a sister from Vermont and two darling grandchildren. There were perhaps thirty people on folding chairs.
Then I put on a white stole, walked to a lectern and began the Prayer Book office for burial. “I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.” The daughters had asked if we might simply open the service to the gathered family and friends, inviting anyone who wished to stand and offer a brief story of how their mother had touched them. I opened the floor and the stories began to flow.
Here is the one I cannot forget.
A woman in her forties walked to the lectern, and asked the crowd to bear with her: she was a little nervous. The woman in the coffin was her aunt. Years ago she had brought her boyfriend home to meet her family, and her mother had rejected the young man. “My mother didn’t want me mixed up with an Italian from Staten Island—who had tattoos and ran a restaurant,” she said. The small congregation laughed. “But Aunt Janet didn’t care about any of that. She trusted me, and the truth of my love. She told me I had her blessing. And she told my mother to back off! Now we’ve been married twenty great years,” she said, pointing to a stocky man in a blue suit sitting in the second row of chairs. “Thank you, Aunt Janet,” she said, glancing back at the coffin, “for believing in me.”
Very often, in considering how best to live our lives, people say, “What do you want people to say at your funeral?” It is easy to be judgmental and controlling, to insist that we know best in the lives of our loved ones. I sat there and thought, “I wonder if that mother had any idea how her small-heartedness would live on for twenty years—and more.” (It’s ok for a parent to have reservations, but what the daughter remembered was not a mother who sat down with her and wanted to know more about this love, but a woman who could not see a human being beneath a tattoo or an ethnic label, a mother who sat in summary judgment.)
In the story of these two women, the mother and the aunt, we have a classic distinction. Do you want to be a judger or a blesser? I don’t mean that we ought never to question our loved ones when we think they may be headed in the wrong direction, or making a bad choice. But how we do it matters. We ought to speak our truth in humility (after all, it may turn out not to be true at all), say it once, and then return to unconditional love. That is, “I love you no matter what choice you make.”
Twenty years later you will be happy you did.