Under The Collar Experiment

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Meeting the Dead in Love

More than preaching, more than weddings, more than child dedications, I love memorial services.  I feel I was knit together in my mother's womb and molded throughout the course of my life to serve in this way. Robin Williams’ recent passing had me thinking about the memorial services I have done for those who have taken their own lives.

Not that long ago I led a service for a woman who committed suicide after years of struggling with mental illness.  She would not have wanted to be defined only by the way she died. It was such a small piece of who she was.  She was also diligent, a hard worker, blunt, loving, and compassionate. As I listened to her family, one story stood out to me that seemed to slip past the family and under the door of the room where we were gathered piecing together the fragments of her life.  Once, the deceased and her sister found a bird that a cat had tortured. Its wings were broken. Its feathers were missing, ripped out in chunks. It was barely alive. Seeing this once-beautiful bird struggling for life broke their hearts. It was the deceased’s sister who told me this story. She couldn’t look at the bird—she had to turn away. Her sister—the hero of my eulogy—asked for a bucket of water. In an act of compassion of which very few of us are capable, the deceased dipped the bird beneath the surface of the water and held it there until it drowned.

This story created an opportunity for forgiveness of this final act that took her away from her family. It held the suffering and the strength. A single story from her life offered healing in a way that scripture could not. The joy of our lives is richer when the pain is not neglected, not ignored but held up to the light. When we do this everyone walks away inspired, renewed, and reminded that this life is worth living even in the face of suicide.

People often ask how ministers can write a eulogy for someone we have never met.  It is not as difficult as it may seem.  I am just a vessel for the stories told by those who knew them.  And so I meet them through the eyes of their family and friends.  The formula for doing this well is simple: First, I fall in love with humanity. Then, I fall in love with those who loved the deceased as well as with those who may have struggled to love him.  Finally, I have to fall in love with the one who is gone. After my heart is cracked open for all those involved, I then have an opportunity to meet the dead in the thick of that love, even though our earthly paths did not cross. Knowing the deceased really only adds one more story to the mix, the personal impact of their earthly life on mine.

Death is an opportunity for the truth in a way like no other.  I have the incredible opportunity to paint— using the stories from the living— pictures of the dead.  Although you may not think it so, this is not a lament. A eulogy is meant to praise. It is a final act of gratitude for a life lived. That gratitude, expressed in the context of a life’s struggle, allows us to learn about our own lives by hearing about someone else’s.
In hearing and telling your stories, they in turn, become ours.


  1. May I use this blog on hospice of Green Country's Facebook page. I will cite its source. Your sincerity brought tears to my eyes.