Yesterday's memorial service was the third I have conducted in a year---not too big a deal for most ministers, but different somehow, in that each of the three deaths had a huge impact on me and on the congregation.
Some deaths in a congregation go largely unremarked because the person who has died has been inactive for a long time, the death was not unexpected, and their influence and leadership in the past has been largely forgotten, though it may have had a significant impact on the trajectory of the congregation at one time.
Each person who died in the past year had had a huge impact on the trajectory of the congregation within the past year, each death had special circumstances surrounding it, and each person had had a strong and vital relationship with me and others in the congregation. None of them was unknown, none was a "former" leader, each of them had been a generous contributor of financial support and leadership expertise right up until the time of death or disability.
The first person who died in this cycle was a former president, current canvass chair, constant greeter of new people who walked through our doors, a major power in the financing and building of our new meeting hall. He died five months after a terrible fall in his home, lingering in a mixed state of hope and despair for his loved ones. His memorial service brought hundreds of people into our sanctuary; it was SRO for two solid hours of memories.
The second person who died in this cycle was the widow of the man who had first died. She was found by her daughter on the floor of her bedroom, having died suddenly while getting ready for the day, nine months after her husband's death. I arrived on the scene only a short time after the daughter found her, having been called by the sheriff's deputy who didn't want to leave her alone to wait for the mortuary to arrive. She too had been a mover and shaker and contributor of financial and leadership support. Her memorial service too brought hundreds of people into our sanctuary and we revisited the loss of her husband as well.
The third person who died in this cycle was a man who had defied death for years after lethal physical health concerns first slowed him down. At last everything that could be done had been done and he decided, with his family, to quit taking the medications that had been presumably keeping him alive for years and to let nature take its course. Instead of his dying immediately, as expected, he experienced improved cognition and a mellowed personality and he enjoyed several weeks of "saying goodbye" and conversations with friends all over the map. The extra time enabled him to choose the time and place of his death, and he died peacefully at that time, with family and friends at his side. We got to say our goodbyes in the last moments of his life and then to sit quietly with his body as it became a shell instead of a living organism.
I am tired today. I am looking forward to the next few days of relaxation with colleagues at our UUMA fall retreat. I need it more this year than I ever have. I am more deeply aware of the stresses of ministry than I have ever been.
There have been unexpected blessings and lessons from the felling of these three mighty "oaks of righteousness". I have been privileged to be invited into the homes of these families, to share their sorrow and their secrets, to learn what nobody else has known about these families, to keep all these things in my heart and make decisions, with the family's sayso, about what is revealed and what remains unsaid. I feel like another family member because of these deaths and the needs of those who survive.
I have come to see death as simply another step in life; I do not experience deaths now as something to be prevented, fended off, avoided at all costs. People die. We are sorrowful but we go on. Our lives change and we adapt. There are holes in our lives and we investigate them and then walk around them or fill them in.
I, as the minister who will shepherd family and friends through the process of grief and memory, acknowledge death in these ways while watching out for the bereaved ones whose sorrow prevents them from going on, navigating the secrets and the stories-for-prime-time with an eye to protecting the privacy of the family while revealing the life of the beloved dead.
These responsibilities are an honor, a privilege, AND a huge stressor. I am both wearied and buoyed up by the blessings and lessons. I love this work. And I am glad I am leaving it for now. (You will note that I said "for now".)