Yesterday I went to two funerals. Two very different funerals. It was a somber day and the type of day that makes you pause and do some deep reflecting on life, death, family, spirituality, etc.
The first funeral was for the Deacon Emeritus at my church. Rev. Al was 91 years old and was one of the oldest parishioners at our church. He attended our church for over 50 years and he rarely missed a church service. Going to church and serving the Lord was important to Al and he did that until his poor weary body could just no longer go. I’ll mourn Al. I sat a few pews behind him at the early Sunday morning church service and he always had a smile on his face. Today I missed him at church. I especially missed his smile and his wave during the Passing of the Peace.
I loved Al’s funeral or “Celebration of Life” as I have loved every Episcopal funeral I’ve ever attended. They are truly celebrations of the deceased person’s life. I remember back to 1994 and my father’s memorial service. My father died after a long two-year battle with colon cancer and after having suffered a massive stroke on the surgery table during his intestinal resection and anastomosis. He had donated his body to science and so we had a memorial service for him. I can’t tell you how many people came up to me after the service– mostly people who had never before attended an Episcopal funeral service– and told me they wanted a service just like he had when they departed this life. It was joyful, the way my dad would have wanted it to be. It was not depressing like a lot of funerals I attend. And after my dad’s service, there was fellowship with cookies and lemonade prepared by the ladies of the church where we all shared happy memories of him. It was all very nice.
The Episcopal Church has a beautiful burial liturgy. The service is taken from the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer-book used by Episcopalians/Anglicans all over the world. The service is very solemn but not real mournful and sad. I always feel much joy at an Episcopal funeral service. Al’s service was no exception. There was the processional anthem which was just beautiful to me, especially with all the Diocesan Clergy participating in the procession along with our priest and our Bishop, who was the Celebrant. The casket is present and covered in a white pall. There were the usual scripture readings: The Old Testament Reading, Two Psalms, The Epistle Reading, and the Gospel Reading. There were beautiful hymns and prayers for both the departed and the bereaved. There was a homily (or short sermon) given by our priest which was perfect and very well done. It was both comforting and enlightening. During this homily, many endearing stories were told about Al. Some of these stories brought much laughter, and some brought tears. There was the Passing of the Peace and then Holy Eucharist (communion) which is the norm at most Episcopal funerals, beautiful communion hymns (Amazing Grace ALWAYS gets to me at this time), the post communion prayers, and then the Commendation of Al’s body. The service ends with a Blessing, a Recessional Hymn and The Dismissal. I shed tears as Al’s casket came up the center aisle during the recessional and made its way out of the front doors of the church. They were tears of sadness because I knew that Rev. Al was making his final journey down the aisle of his beloved church– a church he attended and loved for SO many years. He would never return. His many years of service to the church had come to an end. Al loved his church. But I also cried tears of joy because I knew that Al had gone to be with our risen Lord and I knew he was wrapped safely in Jesus’ arms. No more pain. No more sickness. And I also smiled because I knew that he was with his beloved wife of 62 years who had left this earth not quite two years ago. That must have been one glorious reunion.
The second funeral I attended yesterday was nothing like Al’s funeral. My husband and I went to help my sister and brother-in-law bury their ten-year old and very much-loved Labrador Retriever. Jackie had shown her age lately and had slowed down these last few weeks, but still her death was unexpected. My sister had been on her way to the grocery store the day before, greeted Jackie in the basement with her favorite treat, a Milk-bone, which Jackie had taken enthusiastically. My sister lovingly patted Jackie’s head and told her she would return shortly. The dog was happily sniffing around the yard when my sister left. When she returned just over an hour later, Jackie was dead in the driveway in front of the garage door. There was not a mark on her. It was as if her heart had just given up, and she just laid down and peacefully died.
Jackie was a big dog and over 100 lbs. Yesterday my husband and brother-in-law prepared her grave and then gently placed her body down in the ground. Fighting the lump in my throat as they were doing so, I read a passage about God’s creation of the animals as told in Genesis. I read a prayer for animals who have died, and I read Albert Schweitzer’s Prayer for the Animals (one of my favorite prayers that I have framed in my living room). My sister read some beautiful memorial poems about dogs. And there were tears shed from our eyes at Jackie’s funeral, just as we had shed tears at Al’s funeral only hours earlier.
Hear our humble prayer, O God,
Author – Albert Schweitzer
I thought about the sharp contrast of the two funerals. In one, the funeral of a beloved church Deacon, who was escorted out of this world with much beauty, grace, and ceremony, and in the other, a simple backyard burial of a beloved black dog, with her masters standing by her grave. One carried to his final resting place by pallbearers who loved him. The other carried to her grave by her devoted master on a small red wagon. And I came to the conclusion that grief is the same. Grief is natural and necessary. Every bit as necessary for a beloved Labrador Retriever as it is for a beloved church deacon. Our emotions are the same whether we are grieving for a human, a dog, a hamster, or a turtle. Some people might comment that Jackie was “just a dog.” Not true in my eyes. Jackie was a special and much-loved dog who kept her owners well supplied in unconditional love. That’s what she did best and she will be missed. Her owners will miss that love. We all will. They will miss the routines that she provided for them over the last ten years. They will miss her generous love and affection. They will miss her presence and her basement greetings every morning, her wagging tail, and her routine of bringing her tennis ball to them to play. They will miss what every pet gives to us so freely– the feeling of being loved and needed. Our hearts truly break when the human-animal bond breaks.
No one will ever convince this girl, this veterinarian, that there isn’t a place in heaven for our animals. What loving God would keep us from that love? I know as sure as I’m sitting here that Jackie is happily roaming in heavenly green pastures with a steady supply of green tennis balls and that she has been restored to a new and healthier body, just as Rev. Al has been. And who knows, maybe Rev. Al threw a few balls for her yesterday. I had happy visions of them running and playing in all of God’s glory.
Two funerals in a day. Two very different funerals. One for a clergyman, one for a black dog. Both meaningful in their own special ways, with joy and sadness felt at both. Goodbye Rev. Al. Goodbye Jackie. You both have blessed our lives. You will both be dearly missed.