As Canadians emerge from last week’s shocking, homegrown terror motivated attacks on our Parliament and members of our military, this week we encounter the special privilege of sharing in what would often otherwise be the private grieving of others.
I’ve conducted a lot of funerals. The first one was the hardest. We were living in the remote village of Lax Kw’alaams (Port Simpson) in Northern B.C., a Canadian Indian Reserve. I was 23 years old and had not even attended a funeral before.
If being asked to preach to crowds shoehorned into the living room of the deceased each evening for 6 successive nights until the day of the funeral wasn’t challenge enough, there was still the day of the funeral to follow.
At the family’s request I spoke again at the funeral service, as did several other people in a kind of “open mic” format. After the committal service – which involved a flotilla of fishing vessels taking us to and from the island cemetery – the family hosted a lunch at the United Church (the only place in the village large enough to hold the crowd).
The United Church minister was over 70 and himself an aboriginal Canadian. After grace, people began to sip their soup in silence. Bill spoke into my ear, “Tell a joke.” No doubt looking as stunned as I felt, I turned to Bill and asked why. “It’s your responsibility to lighten the mood. You didn’t know the deceased personally so don’t tell a personal story. Tell a joke and everyone will begin to talk. Some will tell stories of their relationship with him and others will talk about the white man’s poor sense of humour, but they’ll all be talking.”
After too many funerals in our nearly three years in the fishing village, I carried forward with me afterward the offer for families to have an “open mic” and regularly encouraged someone who knew the deceased to tell a story at the lunch afterward to get everyone talking. I also carried forward the idea of sitting, for at least an evening, with the family to hear their stories and shape the funeral service to their needs.
Death is a part of life. Mourning is legitimate; and takes different forms for different people. Some will be stoic. Others will collapse in tears. Still others will tell a humourous story about the deceased or share a rich personal moment. And when it seems to some that life must stand still for just a little longer, for others it will already have moved on.
We need to give space and respect for all. And don’t be surprised if a thought stirs in your heart weeks, months or years from now that brings a tear to your eye. Let it inspire a prayer for Nathan Cirillo’s little boy or Patrice Vincent’s twin sister, or other members of their families.
May God bless and comfort the Cirillo and Vincent families, their friends, units and military family; and a nation grieving with them.