Respect for the Living

I conducted a funeral recently. I must confess: funerals are not my favorite part of being a pastor. But I am humbled by the opportunity that I’m given to walk with families through times of significant loss. And I take seriously the responsibility of helping people see grief through the lens of God’s gracious love, given to us in Jesus.

One element of the funeral experience that still has a surprising power for me is the drive from the chapel to the cemetery. I don’t know what other people do with those moments, but for me they are usually silent ones—used to reflect on the comments that have been shared in worship and that will be shared at the graveside. But the thing that makes the drive “surprisingly powerful” is the way that the community responds to the funeral procession as it passes.

You need to understand; I spent the early years of my ministry in a very busy, urban area. In that environment, there was no way that you could stop traffic for a long line of cars, making their slow trip to the cemetery. So after a funeral ended, the time for the graveside service was announced, and people generally got there as well as they could…by whatever route they could.

But here in Mount Airy (and, I’m sure, in other small towns throughout the South), we still make that slow and solemn journey of grief together, and—in an amazing way—the town grieves with us. People let the parade move along uninterrupted, regardless of what the traffic lights say. And many drivers still pull off to the side of the road as a sign of respect for the deceased.

Now, as a sign of respect, this practice of pulling off the road does seem to have a certain “holy appropriateness” to it. It helps us remember, I think, that we truly are connected to one another in a deep and sacred way (regardless of whether or not we like to admit it). I’m reminded of the famous passage from the 17th century poet, John Donne: “No man is an island; entire of itself…Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”

But I also wonder—in this case, at least—if our practice is somehow backward. Don’t get me wrong; it is a good thing to pull over for a passing funeral. But the fact is that we’re paying respect to someone who can no longer appreciate it. At the same time, we rush and speed past living souls…persons created in God’s image and made uniquely for His purpose…individuals who certainly deserve at least as much respect as we show to those who are deceased. As theologian C.S. Lewis reminds us:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses…to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you meet may one day be a creature which—if you saw it now—you would be strongly tempted to worship…or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.” (C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity)

I’m sure that my work will continue to involve me in funerals. And I suspect that members of our community will continue to show respect by pulling over as funeral processions pass (at least I hope they will). But maybe once in a while, we ought to pull off to the side of the road (or stand off to the side of the hall) and pay attention…because passing by us is a glorious procession of God’s children, all so valuable that Jesus Christ would give his life for each and every one. Maybe then, we’d show some respect for the living. And wouldn’t that be a practice worth celebrating?

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