Almighty God, we remember before you today your faithful servant N.; and we pray that, having opened to him the gates of larger life, you will receive him more and more into your joyful service, that, with all who have faithfully served you in the past, he may share in the eternal victory of Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Departed, Book of Common Prayer, p. 253
If there is one thing we natives of rural northeast Missouri know how to do, we know how to "do funeral." One of the greatest comforts in this life--but only if we choose to ride with it--is the small town funeral. I remember during the 14 years I lived in Columbia, going to funerals and visitations were somber, sterile activities. My friends who live or grew up in the "very urban" areas of cities tell me funerals in "city neighborhoods" are more like the small town ones. It seems to be Suburbia that hasn't quite found their way to it.
I particularly remember when the wife of the student dean of our medical school died of breast cancer. The visitation line was like going to the DMV to buy a license tag. Everyone filed in, shook his hand, peeked at the casket, and promptly left. No one stood around in the room and chatted. After going through the line, I remained in the room a bit and tried to engage people in the line behind me. They kept looking forward and having this "go away" look. I walked out to my truck, shaking my head, and thinking, "Y'all don't get it."
In small towns, visitations and funerals are not just for family; they're for community. Granted, one has to walk through a certain number of inane comments and "the mantra of the day." I have come to appreciate the inane comments are simply because people just don't always know what to say--things like "He looks good." (Well, yeah, for a dead guy, I suppose.) Or right after a "he looks good," comment, another person says, "He looks bad." (Well, he was sick--and he is dead--that doesn't lend one to a lot of choices on how he or she looks.)
The "mantra of the day," for my grandfather's funeral was, "Yes, it was very sudden." (He had died of a heart attack.) For my grandmother, it was, "She had a hard life at the end." Saturday, for John, it was, "He had been sick a long time--but he was ready to go."
But what I appreciate the most at small town visitations are the stories. Many of the stories have loud, raucous laughter with them. Sometimes there are tears immediately following the laughter. When one is the "marathoner" at a visitation--one of the family members that stands up by the casket and simultaneously greets and consoles people--sometimes for hours on end--hearing others in the room talking and laughing with one another is the most healing part of it.
Since John had no living relatives, I was one of the "marathoners" as one of his more long-standing friends. The place was packed--quite a testimony for a man with no living relatives. Saturday funerals are often "visitation before the funeral" days--so they can become all-day affairs--pre-funeral lunches, visitation, funeral, and post-funeral meal. It was a long day. John was laid out in very "John-like fashion"--reading glasses in his pocket, turquoise bolo tie, a cross around his neck--and his dog-eared, thumb-worn Book of Common Prayer in his hands.
I was asked more or less impromptu to be one of the speakers. I knew what should be done. I am not into the "me-centered" eulogy. Funerals, for me, are about the Resurrection. It's why I honestly prefer the church funeral to the funeral home funeral--but funeral home funerals are a fact of life, and frankly, it's what most of my relatives have had.
So rather than go into a long shpiel about "John and me," I simply said something along the lines of "I feel like I've lived several lifetimes with John--high school student, college student, medical student, resident doc, attending doc at MU, and now in Kirksville. But what I've come to appreciate the most in John was a shared love of the Book of Common Prayer. So rather than tell you stories about my life in relation to John's, I'd rather ask you to think of a wonderful memory you have of John as John and I share one last prayer together from our beloved Book of Common Prayer."
Then I whipped out my smart phone, already open to the iBCP app, and prayed:
O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our brother John. We thank you for giving him to us, his family and friends, to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, console us who mourn. Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I didn't feel the need to go further. What the BCP had to say for me was enough.
But when the funeral was over, I did not expect what happened next.
Jimmy and Pam, John's closest friends and his "caretakers" towards the end of his life, removed the BCP from John's hands and handed it to me.
"We think John would want you to have this."
I have sat off and on with John's BCP, and I've come to learn "You can tell a lot about a person by looking at his or her personal copy of the BCP."
First, there are the things he poked between the pages. Those two photos were in there. One is of John and his late brother, when John was a child. Another is John graduating from high school. Inside are various scraps of paper, notes, and two business cards--a Hospice of Northeast Missouri card from our priest associate at Trinity, and a card from the deacon from Columbia Hope church.
Then, I started to notice the pages that were worn, taped, re-taped, and overly wrinkled. From what I can tell, John did Morning Prayer frequently. The photo shows the tab he put on the Collect for the Departed. He had tabbed the Prayers for the Sick, and Prayers For Use by a Sick Person. It appears he read Compline a lot. He was evidently quite fond of Psalm 91. He liked to underline passages that referred to angels. He had taped some other prayers in the "white pages" of the front and back of his BCP--things like St. Patrick's Breastplate.
Where John and my prayer life is alike, is that we look to our BCP to find the words rather than ourselves. Where John ran rings around me was in his unabashed-ness to pray for anything and everything. When I think back about his e-mails, they were filled with requests for prayers for people I didn't even know, prayers for his physical condition for improve on a bad day, and even prayers that certain body parts of his changed in terms of condition and amount of inflammation or ulceration present. (Some of them, I might add, were body parts over which I am not accustomed to praying about.)
But that night after the funeral, I found myself simply leafing through the pages to try to figure out what was important to John, in terms of his BCP.
As this week has become filled with news--news of floods in Poplar Bluff, news of tornadoes in Alabama, and news of the death of Osama bin Laden, when I feel myself becoming perplexed, frustrated, or in the morass of conflicted feelings, I usually reach for the Book of Common Prayer and try to find beauty in its words when I can't muster ones of my own.
My own prayer book carries its own wonderful memories. It was a present by my friend Debby when I was received into the Episcopal Church. After Debby's death, I found using that particular prayer book comforting. I have to confess, these days I am much more likely to spend time in the BCP via the iBCP app on my iPad or the one on my smart phone. I have mostly gotten away from using a real book for my BCP time, other than when I am at church. I've heard some of my friends talk about the tactile feelings they have using a "real" book rather than an electronic one. I really don't share those feelings much. Electronic is fine by me. I remember a discussion at our book group one time about how Columbia Hope Church uses PowerPoint. A person at the table said, "If we ever use PowerPoint in worship at Trinity, I'm out of here." I could respect those feelings, but I simply did not "get" them.
Reading's reading, in my mind--with one exception.
When the book is connected to someone I love, it becomes special. I struggle mightily with what to do with old medical books that belonged to my mentors. With no biological heirs of my own, who is to have them? Or do they simply go in the estate sale and all the love between the pages is swept away to die, because the hard cold fact of estate sales is "that's just how it is?"
But what I am finding this week, is this: In all the confusion and turmoil of the world, in a time I have no words of my own to describe my feelings, when the ability to pray with my own words feels insufficient, lacking, and conflicted, I reach for a Book of Common Prayer and let its words drive the bus, not mine...and when I am doing the reaching, it is John's BCP I am reaching for, not mine.