Facing Death in the Midst of Holy Week

Like many Southerners, even as an adult, I always referred to my father as “Daddy.” He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during the last years of his life and died ten years ago today on the eve of Palm Sunday. So that year I observed Holy Week in a different and more profound way than ever before. It was intensely personal and accompanied with many tears. Death, the enemy of life, is cruel. I miss him still.

After returning to North Carolina, I touched Daddy’s body and kissed his forehead and said prayers before his cremation. I selected a simple wooden urn for his ashes. I made sure that his ashes were placed directly into it without any plastic bag or metal identification tag, only a layer of cotton between the ashes and the wooden panel that was screwed into the bottom. And I requested that the dirt at the graveside be visible, not hidden under a roll of artificial turf. These things, these realities, were meaningful to me as a priest and, more importantly, as a son.

My brother worked at that time as a private contractor in Iraq. Weather conditions delayed his departure from there, which in turn delayed Daddy’s funeral. That was transformed into a strange blessing, however, since the funeral was held on Good Friday. On a holy day set aside to remember the death of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we also remembered the death of one of his sheep, one of his lambs.

The contrast between the weather in the Old North State and the North Star State was a bit extreme on that day called good. In North Carolina, everything was in bloom. But the back yard of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota, where I served as the Rector, looked like the photograph below, which was taken on the same day. It was symbolic of my own experience at the time. The warmth of the sun back home was a glimpse of the glory that shall be revealed. Those who were in the “Deep North” will remember a magnificent snowfall that year on Easter Day!

Inside the church of my childhood, I recited the Moravian burial liturgy and sang familiar chorales with the congregation. I carried the urn in a procession from the church to the graveyard, which is called God’s Acre, as a brass band played more chorales outdoors. I placed that urn directly into the ground, returning Daddy’s remains to the earth. I picked up a shovel and, together with my brother, filled the grave with dirt in the presence of our mother, our relatives, and our friends. That final act of love was a powerful experience for me and for many who witnessed it.

The chorale sung at the end of the Moravian burial liturgy, just before the graveside benediction, is a beautiful summary of the Christian faith that Daddy and I shared:

The Savior’s blood and righteousness
My beauty is, my glorious dress;
Thus well arrayed I need not fear,
When in His presence I appear.

Needless to say, presiding at the Great Vigil of Easter on the next evening at my Episcopal parish in Minnesota was emotional for me. It was, however, one of the highlights of my life as a priest. That’s when the faithful of the world, and the faithless too, are reminded of the night in which Jesus passed over from death to life. That’s when we look into an empty tomb but do not dwell there. That’s when tears are wiped away from the faces of those who mourn. As I wrote down the following words for the back of Daddy’s funeral bulletin, these other things, these other realities, filled me with a hope that is firmly anchored in God’s promises:

“The people to whom I owe my life are unforgotten. They are present to me, because in their love I became free and can breathe in wide spaces. Unforgotten for me are people to whom I am bound in affection and respect. They have entered into my life, and I perhaps a little into theirs. Unforgotten for me are the dead whom I miss. They are always especially present to me. Nothing that has been, is no more; everything that has happened remains. We cannot make anything undone, not the ill, but not the good either. What was lovely and successful, and the happiness we have experienced, no one can take from us, neither transitory time nor death.”

These words of the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann at the end of his autobiography, A Broad Place, describe our own lives and also the life that we have remembered this morning. Although memories faded for Clyde over the last several years, those experiences are nevertheless unforgotten. They are not lost because God has embraced them for him as surely as God now embraces him for us.

This we believe.

This is the joy of Easter.

The Lord is risen indeed!

2 thoughts on “Facing Death in the Midst of Holy Week

  1. Neil, Thank you for this. Carrie is not the only gifted author in the family! I wish I could have gotten to know him better. I do know he did a great job of teaching you to be a great father. I am proud of you! Love, Dale

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. A beautiful remembrance of your father. As snow falls in Winston-Salem this first spring morning, I recall the Moravian grace: “Bless our loved ones everywhere, and keep them in Thy loving care.” Best wishes!

    Like

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