I remember my first funeral, it was Flo Chisholm. I was a halfway through Dr. Zeigler’s dreaded Systematic Theology student pastor who had just been hired to drive the hundred miles from Bangor to Danville and bring the word. Flo was beloved by the whole congregation and they spoke her name in a worried tone during the morning prayers. I visited her as she lay upon her rented hospital bed, parked in the living room. For a month of Sundays, I chitchatted and she gave me wise insights into life as it is lived in a quiet Maine village. The last of those Sundays I arrived in a new three-piece navy blue suit with a reversible vest. She appreciated it and I said, “Yep. It’s my marrying and burying suit.” She raised an eyebrow and asked, “So, who’s getting married?” Then, when I stumbled for words, she laughed.
From Flo I learned what I was there for. I needed both in her presence and at her funeral, to speak transparently about death and our shared hope for what follows. This is one of the few remaining gifts that our secular society still gives to clergy; the opportunity to speak frankly about death. If we can face it in all of its forms, and not stumble; then we are given permission to say what we believe about eternal life.
In each of the seven hundred odd funerals since, I have, in the words of Johnny Cash, walked the line. On the death side of the line I say; the person’s name and what made them unique, the person’s faults and what needs now to be forgotten, and the person’s relationship with Jesus, even if it was most tenuous. On the eternal life side of the line, I speak the person’s name again and share how God’s love overcomes any doubts previously expressed. I speak my faith and what I believe about eternal life. I remind those gathered to be thankful for the gift of this life, and not to be resentful of the fact that it has been returned to its giver. Then I remind myself and everyone present, that we too shall soon cross the line.
From Good Friday through Easter, we all know what we are in worship for. We are there to hear and to speak the line; how the faultless lover of our souls died in our place, how death winnows out the chaff of our lives for the burning, but the precious metal of faith proves true. We cross the line into eternity. Those who have been given permission to speak on Easter Sunday, must like the women who came from the tomb, speak as clearly and transparently as possible, about what they know. We need to tell people what we believe about eternal life and why. It is what we are there for.