I have always been fascinated, both as a pastor’s kid and as a journalist, by the art of delivering eulogies. These addresses at public funerals — equal parts sermon, tribute and grief counseling — force ministers to face some unique challenges, while tiptoeing through the real lives of the person being honored.
Try to imagine preaching the sermon in a high-profile worship service held to honor two unnamed sailors who died a century and a half earlier, lost when a legendary warship sank during a storm.
I don’t know about you, but I would have been interested in what Navy chaplains said under these circumstances. At least, I assume Navy chaplains spoke in this unique service. It’s hard to know since The Washington Post story about these rites tells readers next to nothing about what happened.
I know, I know. There was no urgent need to discuss the worship service in this case.
I get that, sort of. At the same time, I have always found that worship services connected to major public rites always contain colorful, symbolic and meaningful quotes — verbal gems — that help capture the tone and content of these events. This happens in sermons, in hymns and in scripture readings. The worship leaders are trying to put eternal truths into words, a process that tends to produce colorful language.
Here is what readers learn at the top of this story:
A century and half after their deaths aboard one of history’s most famous warships, two sailors from the USS Monitor were laid to rest at sunset Friday on a hillside in Arlington National Cemetery.
In what might be the last funeral of the American Civil War, the two shipmates were buried with elaborate military honors, their flag-covered caskets carried on horse-drawn caissons as a throng of dignitaries, crew descendants and bystanders looked on.
The burial came on a blustery afternoon that was one day short of the 151st anniversary of the Union ship’s legendary battle in Hampton Roads, Va., with the Confederacy’s CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack. It followed a crowded religious service at the Ft. Myer chapel adjacent to the cemetery, where eulogists called them brave sailors and noble souls and sang them a Navy hymn. A painting of the Monitor sinking stood in the front of the chapel, flanked by two tall candles.
It’s good to know that the service was crowded, which means that some people involved in these rites took seriously the worship elements of these rites.
Still, I have some questions. For starters, the EULOGISTS sang the departed a Navy hymn? Read that passage again. I would be curious to know a bit about the eulogies, since it must be hard to preach a eulogy about an unknown sailor. Was this a Protestant or Catholic rite? Completely interfaith? Were scriptures of comfort included, 150 years or so after someone, somewhere, suffered the loss of these loved ones?Talk about a challenging liturgical puzzle.
Also, the congregation — surely it was the congregation, not just the clergy — sang A Navy hymn or The Navy Hymn? I would assume it was the later, which would mean the service included these striking passages:
Eternal Father, Strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid’st the mighty Ocean deep, Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.
O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard, And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walked’st on the foaming deep, and calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh hear us when we cry to Thee For those in peril on the sea!
Now, the rest of the story offers readers the facts that they need to know about this event. It includes some interesting quotes about the historical event itself. Readers, of course, also learn a bit about the crew members who were lost.
All well and good.
Andrew Bryan, of Holden, Maine, said he was a descendant of Monitor yeoman William Bryan, who died when the ship sank. The sailor appears in one of the old photographs of the ship’s crew, Bryan said.
“This was a story my grandfather told when I was really young,” he said. “I think it’s great. The moving part, the emotional part for me is my family. … This will carry on the family history. … This a part of our heritage. This is how we got here.”
Anna Holloway, curator of the USS Monitor Center of the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, said the gathering was like a family reunion.
“We are like this whole big Monitor family,” she said, referring to the Navy, the museum and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “And all these descendants. It is like old home week.”
Some of the material is pretty colorful, but, well, some of it is rather pedestrian. I cannot help but think that at least SOME of the poetic language used in that crowed worship service could have made the editorial cut and found its way into the final news story.
Unless, of course, no one from the Post team attended the service — which could lead to the kind of shallow, vague paragraph discussed above. Did anyone attend that part of the rite itself, or was this story pieced together later?
What think ye?
IMAGE: Wreck of the USS Monitor, painting by Tom Freeman.