Friday, November 4, 2011

Service Stations: A Non-committal

I just got back from the interment for a funeral I did this morning. Sort of. I mean, I did just get back, but the interment was "sort of." The dear saint of God who died is to be buried with her husband who died about 10-15 years ago. I don't know for sure off hand. He is buried in Ft. Snelling National Cemetery. We have had a couple of church members buried there, but for various reasons I have never gone to one of these before. Also, my own grandmother is buried not at Ft. Snelling, but at Arlington National Cemetery with her husband, but I wasn't present for that one either. I don't know if what I experienced is normal for national cemeteries or not. Maybe there are others who can enlighten me.

Put bluntly - - it was just weird to me. I love our national cemeteries (or at least the two I have seen), the uniformity, the artistic quality of being in them, just floors me. I sit in awe. Today while we waited for the cemetery personnel to come pick up our procession and take us to the service site out my window were the back sides of gravestones where wives and children who are buried with their husbands are listed. Two rows in a row there were infants of different families, a son, Tim, in one, a daughter, Stace, in the other, both born at died in 1958, who were buried with their fathers. A couple of rows over from that I could see one stone whose back was engraved only "Baby Girl Smith." She didn't even have a name and that broke my heart.

Anyway, and I digress completely, the thing that struck me today was how incomplete the committal felt - - forgive my pun, but how non-committal it felt. At Ft. Snelling at least, the place where you gather for the "graveside" service isn't actually at the graveside. There several different stations set up around the cemetery with a bench and a vault-sized indention in the concrete. You don't walk across the grass to get to the place where your loved one will be buried. You pull up to a concrete "service station." When we pulled up there was one open cement vault, the lid of it marked with our saints name. There was another vault with the lid on it. I couldn't see if there was a tag on it. At the time I figured it was the saint's husband, but I think now it was an empty vault for the next burial.

In front of the vault was the usual stand with a green skirt around it that I'm used to seeing a burial site, the stand that is placed over the open hole in the ground that the casket sits on top of during the committal. Only the thing is, there was no hole underneath it. There was only sidewalk there. It was just for show. The casketbearers carried the casket out of the hearse, put it on the stand, and then it was my turn to start.

I had my book with me, and started to go through my liturgy, but when it came time for the committal I didn't know what to do. It felt weird. We weren't committing her body to the ground, at least not right then and definitely not right there. It seemed strange to say those words "We commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" someday (I wanted to add). I just went right on through with the printed words because I couldn't think of something fast enough and appropriate enough to say instead, but it just felt weird.

When it was all over we had that usual awkwardness of being done, but not wanting to leave. We all stood around for a little bit, but the usual wandering through the gravestones to remember dad or mom or talk about who is over here and who is over there didn't happen. Of course, some of that is directly related to the fact that it's a national cemetery, not a neighborhood or family one, but still. It just felt incomplete, and I haven't ever even been to a graveside where you stay to watch the body being lowered in any recent years. Still it felt not yet done.

I haven't read Tom Long's whole book on contemporary Christian funerals, but I've read a few of his articles about the subject here and there. My slight understanding of his argument is that it feels like we have removed ourselves from the earthiness of death, it's reality. I read somewhere his advocacy for accompanying bodies through their cremation which in a (hopefully not strange) way appealed to me. This process at the national cemetery felt like the exact opposite of that.

After we stood around awkwardly for a few minutes (although, in self-reflection, it may have just been awkward for me), the funeral director sort of herded people back to their cars. He could see another funeral party lined up at the appointed intersection waiting for our service station. I got back into the car in which I came feeling unsettled with ministry still unfinished.


Rev Dr Mom said...

Reading this very late, but I felt that way at the one military service I've done.

I hate the artificiality of funerals--all the things the funeral "companies" want to do to sanitize the process--my dad died almost 10 years ago, and I still get sort of angry at the way they managed everything from covering up everything including the chairs with fake grass to hiding the dirt so we couldn't even sprinkle any, to not putting the urn into the ground until everyone was gone.

Have you ever read Snickollet's blog (you can google it)? When her (very young) husband died of pancreatic cancer she didn't want a religious ceremony, but she did do some very deliberate things, including being present for his cremation and holding a sort of party for him later. Very moving to read about.

Stephanie Anthony/She Rev said...

And I'm reading this very late!

I definitely have had that sanitizing feeling from funeral homes in the past. I remember being almost taught in seminary that the funeral homes were our "enemy." For all of these reasons. The majority I have run into have been less than helpful in planning services that don't hold death a two arms' lengths away.

I was very encouraged, though, recently when I was working with our local funeral home at a graveside for someone I did not know. They had just called me in to do this brief service. Someone in the family asked when it was all over, when they see the casket lowered and get to shovel some dirt in. Having not seen that in MANY years and never with any of the funeral homes I have ever worked with, I apologized and said that it wasn't really an option. I was grateful when the director who overheard the conversation stepped in and corrected me, telling the family that they could certainly be here and participate that way if they wished. It let me know they are open to doing things a different way than is the current norm even if they don't necessarily lay out all those options. If folks ask they are allowed. A step in the right direction.

Several directors from that same home have offered to give me a tour of their facilities including the crematorium and embalming room. I was impressed at that, too, and how they feel it is helpful both for them and my ministry for me to be more educated about it all.

Heading off to google that blog.