When my old friend Mel passed away a week ago, I decided to go to the funeral. Part of me knew it was coming, that his health was failing more rapidly, and that subsequently a funeral would be held, but I hadn’t thought about it. I didn’t feel any particular need to go. But last Sunday morning as I worshiped and prayed and cried, I knew I ought to. I wanted to say goodbye, and to see his family one last time to tell them how grateful I was for the role they played in my life.
Those invited had been instructed to wear bright colours by way of celebration, and we were repeatedly messaged that we were not mourning Mel’s passing but instead were celebrating that his pain had ended and that he was now with God in heaven. I’m not a bright colour kind of guy, but I made the concession of not wearing a suit and I chose a purple shirt, which was about as festive as I felt comfortable being. I get where they’re coming from — yay, he’s not in pain anymore! ((Mel was dying of pancreatitis and had been for a long time.)) — but grandchildren no longer had a grandfather, I no longer had a close friend I could talk with and on whom I could rely, and his community lost a well educated and loving teacher of the Word of God.
The Southern Baptist tradition of which Mel was a part focuses a great deal on the concept of “celebrating, not mourning” people’s death. It seems that not all Southern Baptists take this to the extent that Mel’s church and family did, however; April said she felt like she was looking in on a culture of which she was no longer a part, and yet it felt very different from what she grew up seeing and experiencing. People wore bright colours, but other than their claims that they were celebrating, there didn’t seem to be any actual celebration going on. It was like people had this extreme cognitive dissonance that resulted in everyone present being somewhat uncomfortable.
When I expressed my condolences to Crystal, Mel’s widow, she replied that she was sad he was gone but she was trying not to be because such sorrow was selfish; we shouldn’t want to hold on to someone who is now with the Lord. When I later thanked her for her love and role in showing Christ to me and helping me become Christian, she denied that she really played a part in it and instead ascribed everything to God. When people wept, they seemed to do so bitterly; they were not bitter because Mel was gone, but because they had the audacity to shed tears. As the daughter spoked with a choked voice, she proclaimed herself as celebrating.
It was the worst funeral I have ever attended. ((This isn’t quite fair–I’ve gone to funerals of non-Christians who grew up in a Christian family, and the despair and deep sorrow there is far worse. This funeral was bad in the sense that no one really talked about Mel. April and I have gone to three funerals for her side of the family in the last six months or so, and at every one there were lots of stories told, memories shared, and good times remembered. It is called a “memorial service” for just this purpose, and in sharing the stories we help ourselves remember and hold onto the love we felt for the deceased. At Mel’s, it felt more like people wanted to remember, and yet felt like such actions were like trying to bring him back from the dead and deny him his reward in heaven. Since they couldn’t help remembering and feeling sad, they blamed themselves for feeling selfish instead of just accepting the sorrow and channeling it into a spirit of celebration.)) There were hardly any stories told of Mel, either remembering or celebrating his life. The only person who spoke was the pastor who had known him for a short while, who could only comment on Mel’s enjoyment of cooking, hospitality, and that he was a faithful servant in the church and taught Sunday school regularly. No one remembered him, in the sense that we could have been talking about almost anyone–no one shared what they knew or loved about the man. Instead, a song was sang, and several songs were played, while we all sat awkwardly wondering what these particular songs might have meant to Mel. We watched a poorly edited video of pictures without context ((Provided as a “gift” from the funeral home. It was like they went through PowerPoint and used every slide transition available, then went and downloaded some others to throw them in there so every picture would have a unique, crazy, and random transition.)) and waited for it to end.
When it did, the attendees were dismissed row by row to parade past Mel’s open casket and say our final goodbyes. I have never understood those who grasp at the corpse, touching its face or hands, leaning upon it or hugging it. And yet, I did find closure in reaching out and placing my hand on the casket, and in whispering silently to myself, “Goodbye, my old friend.”
I cried, and if my tears were restrained, they were not out of shame or a feeling of selfishness. I believe that showing emotion is part of being human as God created us to be. Emotions must be tempered by wisdom, but even Jesus wept, and his tears were anything but selfish. My restraint was because I might not have stopped once I started. When I begin to weep over the passing of a loved one–when I throw off all restraint and let the emotional experience sweep fully through me–I recall and relive the death of everyone else I have lost. Tears that are shed honouring life are not selfish. I will not go to the opposite extreme and say they are selfless, but I will declare that they honour life and the memory of the one who is gone from us, who we will no longer see on a daily basis or be able to talk with, and that such honour is understood and respected by God. He does not denounce our tears. God gathers us into his arms and lets us cry as long as we need.
I am glad we went, for in saying goodbye to Mel I found closure. Three days of depression and sadness ended and I was ready to move on. I am glad I knew him, and I will remember all the great and Godly things he did for me, as well as his weaknesses and faults so I might learn from all aspects of his life. I will remember as well how painful it is to have one’s thanks rebuffed, and how cold and inhuman (how odd and unChristlike it seemed!) to present a facade of celebration and curse one’s own tears for being selfish. ((No one can celebrate when they are attempting to repress their emotions–repress one and you repress all.))
Too often, we feel that to live as God wants us to live, we must repress and stamp out our humanity. That to be like Christ is to be like an automaton. I do not think this is what God desires. Instead, we should be seeking to become more human, to be what God had intended us to be before sin entered this world. We should dance and shout and sing, weep and fall and put on ashes, and never deny what God made us. Tears are not selfish. No, they simply express deep and abiding love, sorrow, and perhaps hope for a time to come. We weep not because we are weak, but because we are strong enough to become holy. ((Consider this a postscript: As I conclude this, I am reminded of part of a conversation last night April and I had with our friends Brian and Courtney. We were discussing funerals and the prevalence of caskets in America, and how Americans do their best to dress up and hide away death because they are afraid of it. Is the concept of tears as a negative, and of mourning the dead as unseemly, a Christian interpretation or an American one that has been imprinted on some Christians? In looking at how the Jews and earlier Christians up until a few hundred years ago responded to death, I tend to think the latter.))