The summer of 2018 is one that I will remember for quite some time as the Summer of Death. There were quite a few deaths during these past several months, though none from my immediate family or circle of friends. They were all in the one-or-two-degrees-of-separation category. Though some were people I did know personally, our acquaintance came through a more primary or substantive relationship with someone else. Some of the deaths were due to the passage of time and my own continuing climb up Mount Chronos, but several were unexpected and, in some cases, tragic.
One thing that united all my Summer 2018 deaths was that all of the individuals (or their mourners) belonged to the ecclesial categories of “none” or “done” that we have become familiar with. Though there were various memorial services, they mostly tended to be detached from any organized religion, and were constructed by the bereaved, though utilizing elements of some Christian funeral rites more than they probably realized. The only one of these services that was geographically close to me was held at a martial arts dojo in Chicago, where my deceased friend had been a member. The previous week there had been a service at her parent’s Baptist congregation in Michigan, though my friend had long ago parted ways with that denomination, and with Christianity. There were copies of that service at the dojo, and I was able to speak with her aunt and uncle, who had attended. They told me that the service was lovely, and provided comfort for my friend’s (still living) parents in their time of grief at their daughter’s unexpected and much-too-early passing. The family of origin/family of choice dynamic seemed to be in full operation.
As people gathered for the service, it was impossible not to notice the eclectic nature of the crowd. A whole spectrum of ages, races, ethnicities, and modes of dress, as well as a number of single people (as my friend had been) and a variety of families (including some who seemed happily unaware that not many days earlier Pope Francis had declared that their families were not families). There were people who I knew had been, at one point in time, part of a Christian tradition, as well as others who were (to some extent or other) Muslim and Buddhist. A separate table contained the programs from her other memorial service, along with “musical remembrances” of her life—which was people displaying various CD recordings of musical artists that she enjoyed listening to. A memorial PowerPoint slide show was running, and a buffet/beverage table had been set up. We were encouraged to enjoy the refreshments beforehand, and some social time as well.
Most of the service consisted of spoken memories, with two of her closest friends offering eulogies. As the stories emerged, we learned of her involvement with the dojo not only in advancing her own skill in martial arts, but through its outreach programs—especially going to various neighborhoods in the city of Chicago to offer martial arts instruction to underprivileged and mentally/physically/emotionally challenged youth. There were quite a number of people who felt compelled to stand up and offer their stories, and there was never any sense that any one went on too long or that the service needed to be wrapped up. Space and time to accommodate everyone’s grief was present.
Of course, as a church/liturgy/music person, I could not help but view all of this through something of a professional lens. I tried—and largely succeeded—to keep myself in that time and space during the service itself; it was the ensuing weeks and months that were filled with much reflection on this service, and the remembrances of all those others who have passed away this summer.
As Teresa Berger pointed out on the PrayTell blog, even if a church isn’t officially involved with the service or even the act of mourning in every case, why couldn’t they provide a space for this to happen? The dojo where this memorial was held had visually and explicitly named its mission as being a place of “belonging, respect, and healing.” At the service I attended, its mission was gracefully carried out. I thought back upon the various churches/congregations I have served as a liturgical/musical minister, and wondered if belonging, respect, and healing truly would have been perceived as characteristics of those places. I could think of numerous times when my own ministry was not characterized by those attributes.
I keep returning, however, to the possibility of a basic offering of our churches for the space and time that people may need, especially as more and more of our spaces go un- or under-used. This is, of course, something of a 1940s cinematic “let’s put on a show!” mindset on my part, and I realize that there would be concrete issues to be worked out. Still, why can’t we be open to (or open for) belonging, respect, healing, and being a vehicle of grace in the world? This could also be, secondarily, a source of evangelization—though we must be careful to understand that “evangelization” does not mean “recruitment.”
I do understand that the Church—or a church—can’t be everything for everybody; any institution that attempts to do so will probably fail, and may end up being nothing for anybody. What became most clear to me that day was that individuals, and families, and societies will seek out and establish or create—with or without religion—that which they need to carry them through these liminal stages of life. In a world that sees an increasing diversity present everywhere, we might be wise to learn how to make our embrace wider.