Ask most people why we do a funeral service, and you’ll likely hear something to the effect of “for the living.” You may even get some version of the minor heresy that the body is “just a shell.” What matters is the spirit, and that’s long gone, so who cares? Take this view to its logical conclusion and even people of Christian faith may wonder what the fuss with funerals is all about. Just go have a drink and celebrate the person’s life. Indeed, an undertaker once told me that a couple preplanning death arrangements asked to be cremated and their ashes thrown in the trash, to which he responded, “Sorry, I can’t do that.”
Once, right before the start of a funeral, the funeral director asked me if after we finished up with the graveside committal, I could “say something for grace.” I thought it was his tongue-tied way of asking me to pray before the church meal. In fact, he had an urn with the ashes of an almost-anonymous Grace. He had been instructed by the distant family to deposit the ashes in the cemetery. For whatever reason, they wouldn’t be coming.
And so I said something for Grace, reading the ancient “all our days pass away” words of Psalm 90 and Jesus’ confident “resurrection and life” words in John 11. I went through the sacred motions: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We prayed–just me and the funeral director–and deposited Grace in the ground.Who did we do that for? It wasn’t for me or the funeral director. We didn’t know Grace, had no grief to work through. The brief ritual offered us no therapeutic dividend. We didn’t need closure. The relationship had never been opened. Perhaps, if they learned of it, her family would take some comfort knowing that we had said something for Grace.
It seems to me that this work of the dead was done for the dead, that these were actions and prayers and words offered up to God on Grace’s behalf. She was there, though not all of her: as we committed her body to the earth, so too we entrusted her spirit to God. The funeral, in this radically abbreviated form, was for her. We were bearing witness to Grace’s life and death.
In bearing witness to Grace, we were also bearing witness to God. Without story and family and social position, all that was left was faith, the solidity of ancient words and the gentle unction of prayer. Which is fitting, for it’s really the same position we all find ourselves in, though the gauze is rarely peeled back so starkly. In the end, faith is what remains, that relationship between us and God. When the career is over, the children are raised, education is threadbare and our minds have become tatty, it will be us and God.
And so under the sheer, blue heat of the Kansas sky, we did the work Grace needed others to do for her, commending Grace into the hands of the eternal, loving God.