“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.” Eccles. 9:5-6
Friday, February 17, 2017
Several of us arrive, unpack our instruments in the music room and grab our folders. Maria has chairs and stands ready for us in the sanctuary; we take our places. Violas: in the back, as usual. We chatter and joke with one another as everyone settles and tunes. The mood is oddly chipper considering we are about to play for a funeral. This is what we do at our church: when someone dies, a call goes out to all our regular musicians to play at the funeral. We don’t have praise teams, but I suppose, this afternoon, we are the lament team.
I note with fleeting concern that I feel much wider awake than I normally do when I play for Sunday morning services.
On the communion table today: one tall Christ candle. Splendid floral arrangements surround the table on wire stands. Birds of paradise. Bold orange splashed against thick beds of jungle-green leaves.
Maria has the musicians’ “road map” well organized, so we pace along, rehearsing the songs requested by the family. Most of the songs have a gospel feel, and although we are a bunch of older white people, we are trying. On “Just a Closer Walk” we decide we ought to give the squared-up eighth notes a little swing. Cal, our resident Bach scholar, is playing the intro on his recorder, so it’s up to him to set the feel. “Swingin’ Cal” we decide to call him.
Rehearsal neatly concluded, we watch as people gather. The many family and friends of Don Wilson, aged 86, preceded in death only a few months ago by his wife, Hilda. A good man, a Christian man, who lived a rich and full life. The family is grieving, obviously, but I feel … glad. Is that all right? I’m glad to be there, glad to serve the family and the church in this small way. And glad for the witness of a saint who finished the race well. Isn’t this what we all long for? A good funeral gives us all hope: it’s possible to live this life well.
Our prelude concludes with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The people are eager, expectant. They sing along with the soloist, quietly at first and then more boldly. An opening blessing, a hymn—“Rock of Ages”—and then a profession of faith: “What is your only comfort?” We respond, in full voice. When we get to the prayer, even though the bulletin neglects to say “People” before the words, everyone prays it together anyway.
A colleague, two adult grandchildren, and a daughter offer their remembrances of Don. They tell funny stories, try to capture his essence. They all keep to their four-minute time limit. They express, as eloquently as they can in a few words, their admiration and love. He was an “intellectual diplomat.” He was full of childlike wonder. He told wonderful stories. We could see his faithfulness in the details, the way he sent out six thousand postcards a year to people on their birthdays, people gathered into the wide orbit of his acquaintance.
Now Jack is preaching a sermon on Romans 5, on grace. Jack says he was Don’s student at Calvin College fifty years ago. Fifty years! My mind starts to wander (sorry, Jack). I, too, was one of Don’s thousands of students over the years, in an anthropology class at Calvin circa 1984. It was a great class, eye-opening. Other than that, I only knew Don in his retirement years, mostly from a distance. Week after week he and Hilda sitting near the front at worship in the comfy chairs we set up for our older congregants. Faithfulness. So many days passed, the circles of days moving round the years. And now, all of it concluded with this funeral.
Is it enough?
My gladness turns to melancholy. I think about how all funerals, even the best ones, seem so desperately inadequate. How do we honor a life in several four-minute speeches and a sermon, a few prayers and songs? How do we capture the personhood of a person? We say a few words, we share recollections. The family, maybe many others, will tell stories for years to come. But the person slips away. Into glory, into the arms of Jesus, we believe. But to us: gone.
More prayers, a committal, a song (“Go Tell It on the Mountain”), a sending. The gathered congregation disperses to the café area for refreshments. The musicians zing through “For All the Saints” at a triumphant clip. As I play out the tenor line with long, full bowstrokes, I do not think about the words. If I do, I will think about my dear ones who from their labors rest, and I will start to cry.
We musicians have packed up our instruments, gathered our coats. “See you on Sunday,” we say to each other. We disperse to our various Friday nights, to the present moments, the varied textures of lives still in progress.
On the way home, I think about how difficult it is to honor the wonder of a life. Another retired Calvin professor died this week, a person I did not know at all. Another good man who lived a rich and faithful life, wrote books, served in the state legislature. A flurry of impromptu recollections appeared on the faculty list-serve. The college media office will write a nice commemorative article for the college website. But it will all fade soon enough. We’ll move on. All flesh is grass.
We try to put some slim hope in legacy. Maybe, if you’re like these two old professors, you will leave behind fond colleagues, thousands of students, a few books you wrote. Or if you are a pastor, maybe you will leave behind decades of ministry, full of people God blessed through you. Or maybe some institution or organization you started will last for a while, maybe people will even remember you were involved. Maybe your co-workers and friends, the people in your church will miss you. For a while.
Our loved ones? A few generations after we die, we are forgotten. Even in the most loving families. Your great-grandchildren are unlikely to have much memory of you. If you even have great-grandchildren, if you even live to see them. Maybe a record will last, a name in a genealogy. Nothing of you.
Years pass, and it all fades into scattered glimmers of memory. Most of us are so unimportant in the end of end of ends.
My mother used to keep the church directory by the kitchen phone. When someone in the church died, she would scrawl “gone” across their face in loopy cursive. It was her way of honoring each precious soul. When my mother died, I found manila folders with funeral programs from friends, church members, her own siblings. Gone. Gone. Gone.
We sing songs about being carried home, about being there for ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun. This is our hope amid this brief, bright struggle. But what of the blessed and tangled texture of our lives, so quickly forgotten even by ourselves? Let it be held, please let it be held forever in the mind of God.