The day was bright, cool, and windy, as mourners gathered at Christ Church Bronxville for the funeral of Cody Unterseher on Saturday, April 28, 2012. After the organ voluntary, the ministers processed to the entry of the church to receive the body. Clouds of incense rose, as the stately procession entered. In addition to the usual ministers, the procession included the full choir and approximately fifteen clergy. Three priests concelebrated at the altar: Mother Jennifer Brown Lanier, assistant priest at Christ Church; Mother Kate Malin, of St. Anne’s in the Fields, Lincoln Massachusetts; and Father David Sibley of St. John’s, Fort Hamilton (in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn). Mother Brown presided ably over the celebration, imparting to the solemn gathering her own warm and courageous spirit.
The paschal candle was carried in procession. Pall bearers placed the coffin at the head of the nave, in a space flanked by six tall candlesticks. Large flowering branches on either side of the steps to the choir reminded us that we are still in the season of Easter, and a baptismal hymn before the gospel underlined our sharing in the paschal mystery. Cody once wrote on his Facebook page: “I am a baptized Christian. Above all else, this is what shapes the person I am.”
Many people had gathered for this Rite of Christian Burial and Mass of the Resurrection. The center section of the church was completely filled, and the side sections were partially filled. The congregation included a strong representation of both Christ Church, and General Theological Seminary, where Cody had studied. Of family there were only two: Carla and Kim Unterseher, Cody’s parents. (Distance was no doubt a factor, as Cody was from North Dakota.)
The night before, more than sixty people had gathered for visitation and a vigil service. Cody’s meticulous attention to liturgical planning was legendary; it was assumed he had made plans for his own funeral. However, because of the unusual circumstances of his illness and death, no one was able to find them. Therefore, his friend, Fr. David Sibley, along with the parish music director, Christopher Wells, put together the vigil service and the funeral liturgy, drawing upon Common Worship as well as The Book of Common Prayer for the texts. (You can see the order of service for the vigil here.) Their diligent efforts to produce something that Cody himself would have wanted yielded wonderful results. (You can see the order of service for the Mass here.)
The Reverend Deacon Kiel Walter Mitchell, associate at St. John’s in Barrington Rhode Island, chanted the gospel from the center of the church. A close friend of Cody’s from seminary, Deacon Mitchell had only recently been ordained. Cody had never seen him serve in this role, but had looked forward to it–making this a poignant choice. Father Sibley preached, giving voice to the shock and sadness of this event, yet drawing the assembly to deeper faith and hope through the gospel. (You can read the text of his homily here.)
A few days before Cody collapsed with a brain aneurysm, the rector of Christ Church, Father Michael Bird, had departed for Spain with his young son, to walk the Way of Saint James—the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela—as the first portion of a sabbatical. Mother Brown read a letter from him (added 5/4) , and explained that his decision not to return for the funeral was made with deep regret.
The choir sang beautifully, and so did the assembly. The hymn before the Great Thanksgiving was Cody’s own paraphrase and adaptation of the Te Deum (to the tune of Thaxted). The Sanctus and Agnus Dei were taken from the Bronxville Mass (Robert G. Owen).
As the people walked forward to Communion, many reached out and touched the coffin gently as they passed by.
At the end of the service, according to the custom of Christ Church, all stood in silence while the church bell tolled—once for each year of the life of the deceased. Thirty-six times, the bell tolled. Many were in tears.
This report would do no justice to the event, however, if it were to end only in sadness. The hope of resurrection, and faith in God’s promises, were sustaining notes throughout the celebration. The strength of the gathered community could be sensed, and also the character of the one whose life’s passage we honored: Cody C. Unterseher, priest, scholar, pastor, friend, son. May he rest in peace.