As you know if you were here last Sunday, or if you keep up with the happenings here in town, Howard Shifflett died two weeks ago. Some of you may have known him well. If so, my condolences, our condolences. I myself though, only met Howard for the first time when he came to our church one Sunday. He interrupted our church service, remember? He had just learned of his granddaughter’s horrifically violent death. He was in a state. He asked the church to pray for her and the family. We did. Of course, we prayed for Howard, too.
After that, I would occasionally see Howard around town. When I passed him on the sidewalk, he was friendly. Every time, he reminded me that his own grandmother had been a pastor. I’m not sure why he said that—maybe he was giving me his Howard Shifflett seal of approval? Maybe he was trying to assure me of his own Christian roots? Maybe, though, he was just trying to make small talk. Our hurried conversations were awkward. I certainly didn’t think it appropriate to bring up his granddaughter’s death. What do you say? As it was, there was this unspoken sadness between us. Because of course, I felt sorry for his loss.
Anyway, Howard died. There was no obituary that I could find. The family cremated Howard’s body. There was and will be no memorial service.
And so it goes. A friend of mine, his name was Chuck, died suddenly a couple of years ago. Chuck lived just outside Charlottesville. When I left the church I was serving, my connections shifted. We lost contact. And then he died. Chuck’s only living relatives, a brother, sister-in-law, and two nieces, live in North Carolina. They came to Charlottesville in time to have some last words with him. After Chuck died, they published Chuck’s obituary in the Daily Progress, that’s how I learned about it. By then, though, my friend had been dead a few months. I phoned Chuck’s brother to find out the details of his passing. A fast-growing cancer took him. As with Howard, there was no memorial service for Chuck.
Howard’s passing, Chuck’s passing. No services. I wasn’t envisioning a religious service for either of them. I don’t believe that Howard had religious affiliations at that point in his life, and for sure Chuck didn’t. But it seemed to me an injustice had been done. But what kind of injustice? I mean certainly Howard and Chuck don’t care. I don’t mean to be funny here, just stating the case. They are not with us anymore. Truly, they don’t care.
And then I remembered a quote—one of my favorites. It’s by Frederick Buechner. He’s a popular religious writer. He lost his own father when he was young. His father committed suicide. Once again, no funeral, no memorial service. As an adult reflecting back on that time, Buechner wrote this, “There was no funeral to mark his death and put a period at the end of the sentence that had been his life, and as far as I can remember, once he had died my mother, brother and I rarely talked about him much ever again, either to each other or to anybody else……don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel was the law we lived by.”
Buechner,too, considered that an injustice.
When I am still in the beginning stages of sermon-writing, I often run my ideas by friends, fellow pastors. That’s what I did this week. I shared my ruminations, and at that point in the sermon writing process, they were just ruminations, about death and dying and the need or lack thereof to put a period at the end of the sentence of what had been someone’s life. I wanted to know: Is this a trend and is it a trend that is picking up steam? Does it even matter, or is this some kind of injustice. These are the questions I wanted to explore with my friend, Deb.
So, this is what I knew about Deb’s past going into this conversation. Her parents divorced when she was very young. Her dad remarried, and so did her mom. She and her sister were raised, then, by her mom and stepdad. She saw her real dad, only infrequently. She loved her stepdad, fiercely, and she mourned his passing. I remember her telling me about that.
Anyway, I didn’t ask her my questions outright. I prefaced our discussion by telling Deb about Chuck. Then I mentioned Howard. We never got to my questions. She jumped right in, offering me this: “My birth dad died last year.” (Why hadn’t she told me?) “He had been sick for only a few days. My sister and I learned of his sickness only after his passing. There was no memorial service for him” Then she added, “There should have been a memorial service for him, how disrespectful..” And then, her emotions took over. We were sitting, facing each other. I held tight to the arms on my chair, as if to steady myself against the verbal hurricane of her angry words.
Another injustice—an injustice to my friend Deb and safe to say, to others who had had a relationship with her father. The injustice is, their feelings were disrespected. They had needed to participate in a public event during which they could express their sorrow. They had needed to put his death in some sort of context. There was no period at at the end of the sentence that had been her dad’s life.
We had a relationship with Howard—Howard touched our lives, even if the only time we ever set eyes on him was that day at the church. We noted his presence, so for good or for ill he is in your memory bank just as he is in my memory bank—the memory of Howard has burrowed into the crevices of our brains along with the memories of our children, grandchildren, the mechanic who worked on your car last week, the person who cuts my hair. And we have feelings associated with those memories.
In that way, Howard belongs to us and we to him. A memorial service would have allowed us to publicly share our memories and our feelings. But memorial services only take place in communities. Sadly, we must assume Howard, or maybe it was his family, did not feel that they belonged to one.
And now, before I sign off, I want to introduce you to one more friend. I mentioned Deb already. We’ll call this other friend, Sandra. She is a UVA music professor. Great gal. She is married to another music professor and they have two small children—I know. The pressure is on for those two children to become musicians, too, poor things!
Sandra did her doctoral thesis on the music in Guinea, West Africa—I am speaking broadly here—I am sure her thesis was much more nuanced than that. Chants of 15th century Guinea, or something like that. Anyway, back in her late 20’s, BC that’s before children, Sandra spent some time living in West Africa engaging in research.
This last year Sandra, now in her late 30’s, AD, that’s after diapers, was on a research sabbatical. She traveled again to Guinea. When she returned to this country she was sick as, well, as sick as you can be and still be standing vertical. She had picked up some dastardly West African stomach parasite. I am sure I must be Sandra’s mother’s age. I couldn’t help chiding her, as a mother does a daughter who acts irresponsibly. “Sandra, Sandra! You have a husband and children now! Don’t you think you better lay off your trips to West Africa for awhile?” Her glib response was “I love what I do.” Shrug. Young people!
Later, when she was talking about the glories of West Africa, I asked, “Will you be taking your children there to visit?” She responded quickly, “Are you kidding? Too many bugs and parasites there. They’d pick up something for sure!” So at least she is protective of her children’s health, if not her own!
I finally asked her one day, “What do you so like about Guinea? Her answer, “In the US, people go to work. They come home. They go inside their houses and lock their doors and there they stay. The next day they do it all over again. There’s no community in that. The people I have come to love in Guinea have no money to speak of, but they value community. Everything is done in community.”
And here I should just say, Sandra and her husband and their children do not attend church—yet--where, hopefully they WOULD find community—a community like ours! I’m working on it!
So here’s what I think. Funerals and memorial services are not private affairs. They are by nature community events—In a Christian community the context for the service is Christ; but ALL religions of which I am aware have some sort of religious rite associated the the passing of a loved one. Even people with NO religious affiliation need a community in which to grieve and receive support. When that doesn’t happen, an injustice is committed. More importantly, though, an injustice is committed against community—and whether Howard and his family knew it or not, he was part of our community—and still is—we have our memories of Howard. He was also part of the Scottsville community. It makes our community bonds just a tad weaker when a member’s passing is not recognized and a life celebrated. At the same time it is an indication that the bonds between us are already frayed—let’s hope not irreparably frayed.
Today we light our candles. These candles are in memory of the people we love who have passed on. We light these candles among people with whom we hare our faith in God in Christ and the Holy Spirit. We light these candles among people we love and trust n community.
I have brought another candle which we will light in hopes of doing our part to end some serious injustices. The last candle represents those folks for whom a memorial sercie was never held. Amen