That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Burial (page 2 of 2)

A Meditation on Mortality (for the parish newsletter)

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston in the July 2016 issue of “The Epistle,” the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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firefliesThe week of the summer solstice was an interesting one in the Funston household.

The night of the solstice there was what is known as a “strawberry moon,” a phenomenon which only occurs when a full moon coincides with the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, longest day of the year. The moon takes on an amber or pinkish glow which astronomers explain is caused by the setting sun’s positioning, affecting the angle at which the sun’s rays pass through Earth’s atmosphere and, thus, the apparent coloration of the moon.

The name “strawberry moon” was given by the Native American Algonquin tribes of northern Michigan and Canada. They believed that a full moon in June signified that it was time to start picking fruits, including strawberries. It is also known as the Rose, Hot, or Honey Moon (the latter being the origin of the name given a newly married couple’s post-wedding get-away). The last time there was a “strawberry moon” was during the so-called “summer of love” in 1967.

Biblically, the summer solstice and the nearest full moon are associated with punishment and death. It was taught by the rabbis in their commentaries on Scripture that this was the time when Moses disobeyed God and was told he could not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Hebrews, but would die instead.

I made note of the “strawberry moon” as I took Dudley for his last walk of the evening before going to bed. I also noticed a large number of fireflies winking in the trees and lawns of our neighborhood. Fireflies always remind me of two things: summers spent with my grandparents in Winfield, Kansas, during the 1950s, and burying my late brother in 1993, also in Winfield which was his home town. The night after his burial in late June, the fireflies were more numerous and more active than I had ever seen them before, nor have I ever seen that many since!

So the “strawberry moon” and the fireflies were, in a sense, a reminder of mortality. The next day, I was scheduled to visit a urologist at the request of my primary care physician. The reason: elevated prostate specific antigen levels in my blood. “Not a big deal,” I thought. I have always had a high PSA level. However, after taking my history, asking a lot of personal questions, and conducting an examination, the urologist told me that I have the classic signs and symptoms of prostate cancer and referred me for a biopsy. That will happen later this month.

“Still,” I thought, “No big deal.” Prostate cancer is slow growing and can often be left untreated without any real impact on a man’s health. However, given my family history of various sorts of cancers, it’s a matter of some (though not a lot of) concern.

I thought that would be the big medical news of the day until late that night. I had gone to bed and was sound asleep when Evie woke me up gasping for breath and obviously very anxious. We headed for the hospital where, eventually, it was discovered that she had two pulmonary emboli, blood clots, in her left lung. (See note below.)

That was yesterday. As I write, she is still in the hospital and will be for a few days while the doctors try to determine how and why she developed these clots.

So in the course of 24 hours, we have both been reminded of our own mortality and, I have to say, I think we’re taking it rather well. Several years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about how we modern human beings face the reality of our own mortality (Facing Your Own Mortality, 9 Oct 1988).

The article contrasted a 60-year-old woman “stricken by two life-threatening ailments – insulin-dependent diabetes and breast cancer” – with a man in his 60s, a doctor “crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

The woman, the author wrote, “stares death down every day. Despite the odds against her, she accepts the possibility of her imminent death with astonishing serenity. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she did not ask, as many patients do, ‘Why me?’ Instead, she thought, ‘Why not me? Rather than crying about your affliction, you have to live every minute you have as a gift.’”

The man, on the other hand, was described as “unable to overcome his anger at being crippled.” He “refused to acknowledge his encroaching impairment. He became hostile toward those around him. As his condition forced him to give up his practice, his anger often exploded. His wife, his full-time caretaker, bears the brunt of his fury. She has confided to friends with great sadness that she awaits the time when both of them will be released from the prison of terminal illness.”

What is it that makes it possible for some of us to face our own deaths with equanimity while others become anxious and angry? I believe the answer is faith, not necessarily the Christian (or even religious) faith, but that sense that life has meaning and that there is a greater purpose in the universe than simply our own meagre existence.

As I write on June 23 for the July issue of The Epistle, today’s Daily Office Lectionary texts included a selection from the Letter to the Romans in which Paul writes, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, be-cause God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3b-5) That, it seems to me, is the essence of faith, the sure and certain hope that (as Paul writes later in the same letter) “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (8:28)

I used to have a congregant (in another parish) who frequently asked me, “What will happen when I die?” I would answer her, “Martha, I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t know because I haven’t been there yet; I don’t care because there’s not much I can do about it.” Jesus asked his followers, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:27) He clearly didn’t think so, for his follow up instruction was, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It is that attitude of faith, to live for today and not worry about tomorrow, that I think allows some to face death with calmness and composure. I commend it to you.

Live for today! Enjoy the summer!

(Note: Yesterday, the day after this was written, I was told by the attending physician that Evie had “a lot of clots, so many clots” in both her lungs. He said that if I hadn’t brought her to the emergency room on Wednesday night, but had opted to wait until morning, she would probably have died. So, take it from me, don’t dismiss even a little unexplained shortness of breath! – Return to Text)

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Saying “Good-Bye” to Our Dog (9 January 2016)

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Her Ladyship Fionnaghuala “Fionna” nic Bhailecraic, Dowager Marchioness of Medina, my nearly constant companion of the last nine years, made her last trip to the vet’s office this morning and went to sleep for the last time at 9:10 a.m. For the first time in 27 years, the Funstons are dog-less. For me, personally, it’s only the second time in 45 years without a dog. I’m not sure how to handle this, but I will.

When I was a kid, my parents had a volume of poetry entitled “Best Loved Poems of the American People.” I always thought that an odd title. How did they determine that? Better title would have been “Best Loved Poems of the Editors of this Collection.” In any event, just about the only poem I remember being in that book was entitled “Rags” by Edmund Vance Cooke. I thought it a great poem back then, then I went to college and studied English literature and realized that it really isn’t very good, at all. Nonetheless, it has stuck with me through the years and the last two verses sum up the way I’m feeling right now:

We called him ‘Rags.’ He was just a cur,
But twice, on the Western Line,
That little old bunch of faithful fur
Had offered his life for mine.

And all that he got was bones and bread,
Or the leavings of soldier grub,
But he’d give his heart for a pat on the head,
Or a friendly tickle and rub

And Rags got home with the regiment,
And then, in the breaking away-
Well, whether they stole him, or whether he went,
I am not prepared to say.

But we mustered out, some to beer and gruel
And some to sherry and shad,
And I went back to the Sawbones School,
Where I still was an undergrad.

One day they took us budding M.D.s
To one of those institutes
Where they demonstrate every new disease
By means of bisected brutes.

They had one animal tacked and tied
And slit like a full-dressed fish,
With his vitals pumping away inside
As pleasant as one might wish.

I stopped to look like the rest, of course,
And the beast’s eyes levelled mine;
His short tail thumped with a feeble force,
And he uttered a tender whine.

It was Rags, yes, Rags! who was martyred there,
Who was quartered and crucified,
And he whined that whine which is doggish prayer
And he licked my hand and died.

And I was no better in part nor whole
Than the gang I was found among,
And his innocent blood was on the soul
Which he blessed with his dying tongue.

Well I’ve seen men go to courageous death
In the air, on sea, on land!
But only a dog would spend his breath
In a kiss for his murderer’s hand.

And if there’s no heaven for love like that,
For such four-legged fealty-well
If I have any choice, I tell you flat,
I’ll take my chance in hell.

Fionna looked at me from the examination table with those big brown eyes, her failing heart pounding and her breathing labored, and I had to tell her that I couldn’t make it better, but I could make it stop. The vet injected the medication, Fionna leaned her head into my hand as I scratched her ear, and then she was gone.

I took this photo just before we left for the vet’s office this morning.

Remember and Rejoice: Sermon for the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (14 December 2015)

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A sermon offered at the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (12/14/1967-12/09/2015) on Monday, December 14, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons selected by the family were Isaiah 25:6-9 ; Psalm 121; Revelation 21:2-7; and John 14:23-30.)

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funeralsprayA Native American proverb instructs us, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced; live your life in a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” Today, on what would have been Sheryl Ann King’s 48th birthday, the world (you and me and everyone who knew and loved Sherry) is crying, but Sherry is rejoicing. “If you loved me,” Jesus told his followers, “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:28); we who love Sherry, let us rejoice (even through our tears) that she, too, has gone to the Father.

In the Jewish religion going back at least as far as the Babylonian exile it is a tradition that those mourning the death of a loved one recite a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish. The prayer begins with these words:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen. (ReformJudaism.org>

As the prayer continues to its conclusion, there is not a single mention of the loved one, no mention of the loved one’s passing, no mention of the mourner’s grief. The prayer is, in its entirety, a sanctification of God and a petition for peace. The rabbis tell us that this tradition arose to remind us, even in the midst of great sorrow, to rejoice and to give thanks.

Nonetheless, there is a very human need to acknowledge the loss of the one we love and in a prayer book of the Reform Jewish movement entitled New Prayers for the High Holy Days there is this lovely meditation:

At the rising sun and at its going down, we remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn, we remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live,
for they are now a part of us.
As we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share, we remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live,
For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
(Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer, We Remember Them, New Prayers for the High Holy Days, Media Judaica, New York:1970, p. 36)

What memories do you have of Sherry? I will always remember three things about her. The first is her competence and her drive. When Sherry was doing volunteer work here at St. Paul’s Church, I knew that if she said she would do something it would get done and it would get done well. (Parish priests really appreciate that and remember with special blessings those members on whom they can rely as one could rely on Sherry.) The second is that she loved to have a good time: she was a great hostess and she enjoyed a good party. I’m sure that she is just as pleased as she can be to be joining the saints in light at God’s great party, the one Isaiah described, that “feast of rich food, . . . of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Is 25:6).

The third thing I will remember is the way she always looked when she came back from her annual trip to Cancun. Sherry was someone who clearly enjoyed the sun! I have to admit to being somewhat amused when I realized that the family had selected a psalm with the verse, “The sun shall not strike you by day” (Ps 121:6)! I’m not sure Sherry would have gone for that, but I am sure she is now enjoying what Malachi prophesied, “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Mal 4:2) Sherry, we believe, is now in that place “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” (BCP 1979, p 499)

And this is where our Christian faith takes us beyond the meditation in the Reform Jewish prayer book. We are assured that more than our memories sustains the lives of our departed loved ones; it is not “as long as we live” that they shall live, but forever. We are assured, because of the birth of Christ which we will celebrate in just a few days, because of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension, that the way to eternal life has been opened to Sherry, to all of our loved ones gone before, and to all of us.

Sometimes when we bury the dead, we also celebrate the Holy Communion. In the Episcopal Church as part of that service, in the introductory preface to the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest presiding at the altar says these words:

Jesus Christ our Lord . . . rose victorious from the dead, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. (BCP 1979, p 382)

This is our Christian hope and our assurance, that in Christ Jesus God has (as Isaiah prophesied) “swallow[ed] up death forever” (Is 25:8), and as John of Patmos heard the voice in heaven saying, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

So, our memories are precious and we cherish them, but it is more than our memories which sustain Sherry or any of our departed loved ones: through the love of God and the salvation of Christ, rest eternal has been granted to them, and light perpetual shines upon them. And we honor them with more than our memories; we honor Sherry not by living in the past, not only by remembering her, but by living into the future. When Queen Mother Elizabeth passed away in 2002, this meditation entitled Remember Me by David Harkins was included in the order of service. It seems to me appropriate today as we remember and celebrate Sherry’s life:

Do not shed tears when I have gone
but smile instead because I have lived.
Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I’ll come back,
but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind.
I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me,
but still I want you to be full of the love we shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow
and live only for yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow
because of what happened between us yesterday.
You can remember me and grieve that I have gone
or you can cherish my memory and let it live on.
You can cry and lose yourself,
become distraught and turn your back on the world,
or you can do what I want –
smile, wipe away the tears,
learn to love again and go on.
(See Poetic Expressions.)

The French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” (Pleasures and Days, Hesperus Classics, London:2004, p 116) “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus, “and do not let them be afraid.” (Jn 14:27c) Instead, let them blossom, and let us rejoice and be grateful for the life of Sheryl Ann King. Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

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