Remembering Our Beloved Dead
at the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque
Today I did something a minister on sabbatical is not supposed to do....I went to my church. I went because after church there was a brief service of memory around our Memorial Wall. This wall (it's also a cinerarium and holds the mingled ashes of our deceased members) is two years old and has on it 27 names of church members and friends. Many have died during the past two years, but some names have been added from long ago. I've been here 18 years, and actually, I knew all but two of the 27.
So each Memorial Day, we pass out sheets with names and a sentence or two each of the persons whose names are on the wall, and these are read, one by one, sometimes by family members, sometimes by friends, sometimes by strangers who are still connected to them through the church. Families of the deceased often attend as well as friends, our older members who must be thinking that their names will be on this wall some day, and the curious or, most touching to me, people who have a sense that if they belong to a church, they belong to its history.
I knew I wanted to go to this short service, but I did not expect to be so moved by it. Of course, in the past, I've been the one conducting it, worrying about it, wondering if the ritual "worked" and if people were too hot in the sun. David was in charge this year. I just got to feel.
In 18 years I've buried about 100 people; that's not a lot as ministerial careers go, but I knew most of them and I felt rather overwhelmed just from hearing about 27 of them today. From still-born babies (3) to young mothers (3), to suicides and those who refused treatment for terminal illnesses (more than a dozen, two of which can still haunt me if I'm in the mood to feel guilty) to the very elderly, one national figure (a Columbia Astronaut) some people who hadn't liked me and a couple who had actively hurt me, and mostly dear and wise older members who I cared about deeply...it was a journey.
I came home and went through my memorial service files.
I've had a couple of strange Memorial Services; I remember one in particular in which ...woops, I've done four services for young mothers, and this was the third in one summer....anyway the deceased's father-in-law came to the memorial service dressed in shorts and acted generally as if he was at a family reunion, and the deceased's partner spent the entire service and reception tending to their newborn baby. Grief is singular, and people work through it in many ways.
I learned long ago to pay no attention to an out-of-town family's estimate of how many people would come to a service; I learned that for the last time when a family told me, "He was bi-polar, never married, had no job, no friends, totally sad and wasted life, so it will be just us." But the Funeral Home parking lot was full; the entire chapter of the Albuquerque Bi-Polar Society showed up and after listening to the family's depressed eulogies came to the podium one by long-winded one and told that family that their son had been a cherished and valued member of a very valuable group. I felt like the family needed to hear this, and the Bi-Polar folks needed to say it, and let the service go on for two hours. At the end the flumoxed Funeral Home Fellow said, "I've uh...never done a Unitarian service before. Are they uh all this long?"
They're mostly under an hour. And I, having listened to the stories of family and friends to prepare, often listen to family and friends give prepared or extemporaneous eulogies, and think, "I wish I had known him better, I wish I had known her longer." And then (since Memorial services are almost always added to an already full week,) must move on to the next task of my days. It was good to remember.