Having just led my third memorial service in three weeks, and with All Saints still fresh in my mind, and with one of our members in her last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about death and grief and community. I’ve also had a lot of stiffness in my “angel wing spots” – that place just inside the shoulder blades that get tense and knotty. I’m thinking it’s accumulated grief, having witnessed a lot of tears and soggy tissues lately.
I’m one of those who often says, “I don’t know what people who don’t have a church do when someone they love dies,” except now I do, because I’ve been a witness to that, too. The first of the recent memorials was for a woman whose husband described her as “a very lapsed Catholic.” Church is not his thing, and was not hers, but they needed a place to have a memorial for this woman who was an extraordinary advocate for justice in many ways. The church, full of faithed and non-faithed people, was packed, like Christmas Eve packed. People wept, and sang, and gave testimony to her life. I offered a prayer and a blessing.
The second memorial was for a woman who was a person of faith, but who had so many different communities of which she was a part – 12 Step, running, partying, engineers. Again the people gathered, some have nothing to do with God, some relying on their Higher Power, at least one who follows the path of Buddhism. God didn’t matter to so many of them, but gathering in community mattered very, very much.
So to my own question of “what do people who don’t have a church do when someone they love dies?” I now answer: they gather.
And sometimes they gather in a church, because (at least for me) churches still offer the witness of hospitality, opening our doors to those who grieve. We don’t ask for proof of baptism at the door; we don’t preach that those who don’t believe in Jesus will go to hell when they die. We open our doors. Because they – whatever they believe – need to gather, we do what we can – offer pews and organs and pianos and chairs, and tea and coffee and cookies. We have projectors and screens for their slide shows, and tables for photographs and flowers. We have deacons who pass out programs and hosts and hostesses who refresh the bowls of nuts.
I think people are surprised that churches do this sort of thing, at least in this neck of the woods. “You would let us have your service there? But my loved one wasn’t a member/ didn’t go to church/ maybe didn’t believe in God.” Yes, we would. That’s what we do. We witness to the hospitality of God by offering hospitality to the community.
In my All Saints sermon, I said “I imagine sometimes that the walls of the sanctuary have a patina, invisible layers of our songs and our prayers and the tears shed in this space.” And here’s the thing: some of those songs and tears have come from people who don’t believe in God, who are shocked to find themselves inside a church, amazed that they are even welcome in a church. But their tears and songs and silences are part of the patina too. They don’t have to believe in God in order to grieve the death of this person they loved.
There is a holiness in grief, and a privilege in witnessing it. But I would like a little less of it, please.