Angels Unawares #5

You know the scene: family and friends gather from near and far to scatter the ashes of a dear departed loved one.

The wide availability of cremation has transformed the logistics of planning funerals. No longer is it imperative to get the body, safely ensconced in its expensive coffin, lowered into its expensive cemetery plot as quickly as practical. Funerals can be scheduled weeks or months after the death, at a time that maximizes convenience and attendance by family and friends scattered across the globe and with calendars booked months in advance. No more prompt funerals in freezing rain attended by only the spouse and resident daughter and pastor. And while certainly a radical departure from funerary traditions throughout history, where public health as well as propriety were of paramount concern, why not schedule a funeral at a time of maximum convenience if current practices allow? Why not include as many people as possible? That’s a good thing, right?

To which I would respond with an emphatic “Yes!”

Not that numbers matter to the deceased. Years ago I attended a session on funeral planning and practices where the presenter’s mantra was “The deceased doesn’t care!” So who does? Well, the survivors. And why do they care? On behalf of the deceased? Some may say so, to which I would repeat “The deceased doesn’t care!” No, it matters to the survivors. And why does it matter? I think because an opportunity to grieve and support and remember and share, and perhaps celebrate and socialize, to partake collectively of all those vital human activities is a bold declaration that death doesn’t have the last word. And if this is the central purpose of a funeral or memorial service (now that disposal of the body has been streamlined), why not maximize attendance? Why not make the shout in the face of death as loud and vibrant and irrefutable as possible? Let dozens shout it out, hundreds, thousands (that latter might be a logistical challenge for most churches or memorial gardens–so rent a pavilion, put up a tent in a field, tell death it isn’t the last word!).

Over this past weekend, I was witness to the aftermath of such a collective shout. Family and friends had gathered from across the United States to scatter the ashes of the family matriarch in the town of her birth and upbringing. And though I wasn’t witness to the actual service at the cemetery of the matriarch’s home church, I could see in the eyes and enthusiasm of the four generations of participants the glow not only of love–for the deceased and for each other–but also of the best kind of victory: of the endurance of the human spirit through the pain and trauma of death. And in this victory, the deceased does care, does share.

Now the real question behind this post: What happens to that love, to that victory, after those gathered depart and return to their lives scattered across the country or the world? Are all those uncommon expressions of vulnerability and support and love dispersed like ashes by the wind, diluted like ashes on the waves? Is the victory short-lived, the shout in the face of death fading to silence, leaving death–alas–the real final word? Or, if by some chance in some remote corner of the globe, the shout isn’t silenced, the victory not forgotten, what form might that enduring victory take? How much effort and sacrifice might be required to maintain that spirit, that thin thread of elemental human emotion and hunger? What would preserving and furthering the positive energy of a funeral gathering look like in our lives?

This is the question asked but left unanswered at the end of Angels Unawares, as the tacitly related yet disparate participants in the last days of Joshua Earl say their final good-byes. Or maybe the question isn’t entirely unanswered. Maybe the fate of the diverse group assembled in that cemetery is implied by what has gone before.

If you have any ideas, let me know.

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