When we have a funeral in the small midwestern town where I grew up, we always have ham buns and cake. We come back from the committal service, go to the church hall, sit on folding chairs, and the Ladies' Aid Society serves us coffee or tea, ham on buns from Vander Ploeg's bakery, and white cake. We gathered there after my mother's funeral thirty years ago, after my father's nine years ago, and last year after my Aunt Bell's.
Why do we repeat that ritual gathering and meal over and over again? We do it for the same reason people of all cultures eat and drink together in the presence of death. Deep within the human psyche, we seem to be unable to say farewell to one we love without the company of family, friends, and fellow believers. So we gather together over a meal.
A Bridge Back to Life
What happens when we drink our coffee and eat our ham buns?
After Dad's funeral, we talked about how he died and also how he lived. We talked about what his life added up to, what he meant to us, what differences he made in our lives. Old neighbors came by, neighbors whom we had not seen for decades. They told their stories of Dad. We remembered funny things and sad things, good things and bad things. Sometimes the talk and the laughter got loud. Embarrassed a bit, we all quieted down, remembering why we were there.
The talk was not all about Dad, either. There were conversations about a niece's wedding next June. There were discussions about farm prices and the national economy. And there was some speculation about next Saturday's football game. In short, there was talk about life—both life as it had been with Dad and life as it would be for each of us in the days to come.
And that's really what this ritual— so powerful that it has endured for millennia and found a home in every culture—is all about. It's a communal way of looking back, of remembering; and by doing so, of making the transition back to everyday life.
A Special Kind of Remembering
People who grieve need a special kind of remembering—something like a commemoration. A commemoration makes the past powerfully present, as if we were experiencing it anew. The power of memory is captured in the stories that are told of the one who died and in the memories those stories awaken. Few things are so painful to a grieving family as silence from the community after the funeral. The silence may be motivated by a wish to spare the family pain, but the family responds, "People act as though she never lived."
Commemoration makes the past present and alive again. Sitting in the church hall, eating our ham buns and cake, we remember what the person was like—how she looked and acted, what she liked and disliked. At the table together we celebrate her life and her death.
We also remember the meaning of her life and of her death. The stories we tell and the memories we evoke are personal and specific. They recount her personal qualities that we cherished and the many ways in which she made a permanent impact on our lives. We and the world we share are different because of her person and life. Like God, her creator, she made new things that continue to exist. Her influence continues in the way we are and in the way we live.
Finally, we remember her life as a child of God. God in Christ was part of her history. He gave her life, he gave her new life, and he gave her the hope by which she lived. Our memories include her quirks and failures, even sins; but we remember them framed by the forgiveness and grace of God. We remember what God did in her life, for that is what will endure: her good works will follow her. To really know her is to know her as one who was in Christ.
All this remembering takes place as we sit together talking of Dad or Mom or Aunt Bell, and as we talk about the niece's wedding in June when the family will next gather.
A Ministry of Remembrance
The remembering we do as we eat and drink together is the pattern for the congregation's ministry in the days and weeks that follow. The remembering that began when we made our communal confession standing at the open grave—"... I believe in . .. the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting"—continues in the church announcement the following Sunday, in the remembrance that week, and in the communal prayers in following weeks.
A day or so after the funeral we are back at work. Life goes on, but it goes on with someone missing. Sunday remembrances by prayer, bulletin, or funeral floral pieces are important because they carry the ministry into the weeks of work and play that follow the funeral. They also give opportunity for members of the congregation who have not yet shared their grief to speak to the grieving family.
The flowers, plants, and cards, most of which are sent before the funeral, are primarily expressions of compassion. They say, "we care," but they are also symbolic remembrances. The card from the staff at the office says, "We remember your dad as a friend and coworker." The flowers from the neighbors say, "We remember what kind of neighbor he was." The stacks of sympathy cards offer comfort and memories that can be read and reread months later. The signatures are as important as the messages. They evoke memories, and they tell us who remembered.
Congregations may encourage a ministry of remembering in a variety of ways. Following are some ideas:
■ In the pastoral prayer, mention by name those who grieve—not just the first Sunday after the funeral but in the weeks and months to come as well.
■ Floral pieces in the church on the anniversary of a death help the whole congregation to remember.
■ Either New Year's Eve or the Sunday nearest Memorial Day can function as an All Saints Day for Protestant churches. Included in theservice should be a litany that indicates the names of those who have died during the past year. The reading of the names is measured, giving time for memories to be evoked.
■ Weddings are often good times for remembering family members who have died in the past few years. Pastors can encourage such remembrances at wedding rehearsals, in personal conversations and prayers at the wedding itself, or at the reception. Although extended mention is inappropriate, a phrase in a prayer ("And as we celebrate, we remember Dad, who would have liked to be here with us") puts into words what many are thinking and feeling.
A Model for Remembering
When Jesus celebrated his own funeral meal with his disciples, he gave them bread to eat and wine to drink and told them, "Remember me. Don't forget what I taught you, what we did together, who I am. Don't forget what I did in healing the sick, in bringing good news to the poor, and in showing compassion to sinners.
"What I especially want you to remember is my death—how I died and what it means for you. All other deaths will be different because of my death. I was abandoned by everyone, even God, so that you will never die alone. I bore your sins and took the wrath of God in your place when I died. Don't forget. When you eat and drink, remember me."
Funerals and all the rituals that accompany them, including the ham buns, white cake, and coffee, evoke the memory not only of the family member who died, but also of our Lord and his death. These are the memories that heal because they give hope. They affirm life in the presence of death.
Hope for the future is largely a matter of memory. When we eat and drink together, we proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Amen, come quickly, Lord Jesus.