Hymns for the Crossing

Like most clergy I know, I’m occasionally called upon to do a funeral for someone who is not a church person. The family likes the look of the building, or a friend of a friend referred them, or the funeral director picks my name out of a hat. Something. However it comes about, it is one of the great privileges of ministry to serve in that way, at any time. It is a gift to step into the life of a family for a time, to hear part of their story and offer a good word when it’s needed.

That said: there is always something a little sad to me about these services. I mean…yes, I know funerals are always sad. But there is something extra-sad about non-member services. For one thing, when I didn’t know the deceased in life, it’s kind of a scramble to come up with meaningful things to say about them. I am committed to authenticity in ministry, so I don’t have a list of tropes that I can recite on command, nor do I have a standard generic script that I can apply to anyone, anywhere. So I spend an hour or so with the family, and I hear stories, and I try to paint a picture of a whole life; to draw out some meaningful themes and images, and apply some appropriate scripture. Again, it is a gift to glimpse a life in this way, but it’s not the same as having known the person you are memorializing.

But there’s one real reason that I find this type of service especially heavy: when you are at the funeral of a non-church person, nobody sings.

If the deceased was not an active church member, chances are most of their family were not either. And if hymns have not been a part of your life and story, they will not be a meaningful part of your life remembrance. We might have a musician there, we might have the hymnals out, we might even print words in the bulletin… But when it gets right down to it, you ask folks to stand and sing along, and a ripple of discomfort rolls through the room. It’s not just that the songs are unfamiliar. It’s that the whole concept of standing in a roomful of loved ones and picking up a strange book and humming a tune together is utterly foreign. The few church folks who are there helping with the service might gamely try to hold up the melody. But it is not the same.

For the life of me, I do not know how you get through a death without hymns.

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Please hear me when I say that I do not mean to disparage or minimize the sacredness of a family’s grief, whether or not they are church members. That whole insider/outsider narrative is toxic, and one that we seriously need to erase from our canon. Life is life, love is love, and family connection is blessed and complicated, no matter who you are, whether or not your family happens to be church members or not.

But when it comes time to gather and celebrate and grieve and remember, nothing pulls it together like picking up that old book and just singing for our lives. And I can’t help note the absence of those refrains when I’m among some other tribe. The lingering silence is, for me, an emptiness that needs to grieved for its own sake.

Right now, in the life of my own church, we are planning the memorial service of a much-beloved, here-every-Sunday, founding member. One who has held multiple leadership roles, one who always knew what was going on with everybody, one who raised children and now grandchildren in the same church she helped to build; one whose spirit and story will always be intertwined with this particular body of Christ. She was a generally in-charge kind of person, and so at various times during her long illness, she talked to me about what she wanted her funeral to look like. She brought it up on multiple occasions, telling me that she had lots of notes and ideas in a folder, that she would share with me when it was time.

Towards the end of the summer, it was time. And she handed me the folder. You know what was in it? A list of hymns. That’s it. Nothing about flowers. She didn’t care about what scripture we read, or who said the prayers. No requests about what people should wear (which happens more than you think) or what inspirational quote to print in the bulletin. It was just hymn requests.

Because there comes a time, on this journey of faith and life and love, when there is nothing left to say. We just sing, one more time, the story of what we know to be true.

I went to visit her late one night, in her last few days. The lights were way down in her hospice room, and there was nobody else in the building, save for a few night nurses. In that thin place between the fullness of her life and the mystery she was trying to enter, I found myself out of words. So I just sang. The ones I knew that she knew, the ones that are written on our hearts, the ones that I knew she could hear from whatever in-between place she’d gone to already.

For the life of me, I do not know how anyone endures death without hymns.

Later this week, we’ll have what I’m expecting to be a very large gathering, to remember and celebrate this life. And it will be hard, and it will be sad, but I know this: we will sing. And it will be good.

“Hymn for the Crossing” is a song by Amy Speace. It speaks for itself. And for all of us. Listen below… 

Don’t speak of nights darkened by regret

Don’t speak of today’s light fading

Don’t speak at all just sit here by my bed

And sing me a hymn for the crossing.

The many miles we have roamed

Each one a mark upon our bones

But in the end we leave alone

So until then, just sing me home…

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