Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

Words of “Joy to the World” fill the airwaves…

Let every heart prepare him room.

We’re in the Advent season now, and many of us are preparing our homes with Christmas foods, decorations and lights. Even the funeral home has a poinsettia in the lobby and wreaths on the doors.

The Christmas season is all about preparing–trees are put up, cookies are baked, stockings are hung by the chimney with care. It can be overwhelming sometimes with all the gifts to be wrapped and parties to attend. Christmas preparations, however, do not come as a surprise to us because the holiday comes around every year. Some of us may even enter December with a faint sense of dread, but traditions are carried on, carols are sung and we get together with family and friends to celebrate the season. IMG_0030-1.JPG It’s interesting to me that one of the most quoted passages of Scripture at funeral services is also about preparing.  You don’t usually think of death as something you can be prepared for, and truthfully, none of us know how long we will be on this earth. Death can come suddenly, even tragically, or it can come slowly, over the years. It is never, however, something for which we can be completely prepared. Some amount of planning may help ease the burden of the many details that need to be attended to when death occurs, but worrying about it will not put off the inevitable nor lessen the grief for those left behind. If there are few conversations and preparations made before a death, decisions for family members can be more overwhelming in their state of grief. Even the most well-prepared plans, however, will not fully lift the feeling of loss.

In the gospel of John, chapter 14, Jesus speaks to the disciples to comfort them in preparation for his death and he says,

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.  You know the way to the place where I am going.”

 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:1-7 NIV

Advent is all about preparing. It is equally, however, about waiting and abiding in the promise of our Savior. The reminder in John 14 is that a place is being prepared for us and it is one of thoughtful design and eternal hope. It may not be filled with gumdrops and candy canes, but it has many rooms, and the invitation is open at all times. This season may find you reflecting on the loss of a loved one or making preparations for when your time comes. Sickness and earthly pain may leave you feeling less than jolly. Our great privilege in this season, however, is to rejoice in the knowledge of the Emmanuel, God incarnate–with us on earth here to dwell– who is preparing a place just for us. How are you preparing your heart to tune into the truth of the real meaning of Christmas this year?

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Flag Duty

In elementary school, one of my favorite duties was flagpole duty. Each day, a small group of us youngsters made sure the American flag was hoisted up the pole in the morning and taken down and folded in the afternoon and in inclement weather. I remember crowding around the flagpole– wide-eyed and watching– as men and women dressed in their Army camouflage raised and lowered the flag. They showed us how to properly tie the rope so it wouldn’t slip and they reminded us of the importance of not letting the fabric of the flag touch the ground. We practiced folding the flag into a triangle and gently carried it back to the classroom to await the next day of flying proudly in front of the school.

I recognized much of the honor associated with the American flag at a young age, and I took pride in the fact that I was able to be a part of the daily task of caring for the flag. Once I started working with veterans and their families at the funeral home, however, I realized there is a much deeper kind of significance associated with our American flag. It wasn’t until I heard Taps and watched military honors rendered at a funeral that the importance of bearing witness to the sacrifices made by veterans really began to sink in.

It is difficult to fold a flag with military precision, and it is a moving experience to watch military details fold the flag and salute a casket. Notes of Taps ring out loud and clear amidst somber graveside settings. Movements are measured, shoes are shined, and jaws are steeled.

Click photo for image credit: military.com

Click photo for image credit: military.com

Crisp white and red stripes of the flag rest gently on top of a wooden casket. The stars are positioned above the heart. Gloved hands reach to pull the flag taut as it is folded into its triangular shape for presentation. An elderly widow sits in her wheelchair with her eyes closed. Her husband is being laid to rest, and some young Marines are folding his flag. We gently set the brakes on the wheels of the chair as we position her in the front row. The dementia has taken her far away from this moment, but they’ve brought her here today nonetheless. She’s snuggled into her blue knit outfit and she nods her head to the music at the funeral. Her eyes stay closed as the young lady with the military issued dress shoes steps forward. The soldier places the flag in the widow’s lap, and the daughter reaches out to steady it. With her other hand, the daughter wipes the tears away from her own eyes.

Years ago, this brave man served his country during WWII. I can only imagine the stacks of letters he and his bride sent back and forth to each other, and the way he held her when he finally made it home. Their young love branched into a family tree of children and grandchildren here today, many of whom have heard his war stories so many times they know them by heart.

Some of them, however, are too young to remember the stories of dark nights and fallen friends, of playing cards and Coca-Colas and those new-fangled radar systems. Time marches on, and it’s said that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. That such bittersweet memories of service to God and country can be so quickly forgotten paints a sad picture for our future.

Veterans Day reminds us of our duty–our responsibility–to preserve our heritage. We can re-count stories and help with school history projects and read books and watch movies about our nation’s heroes. We can talk about the news and discuss hard questions about the political challenges our world faces today. We can honor our veterans by lending our voices and our gifts to the discussion about PTSD and care for our soldiers. We can recite the Pledge of Allegiance and put our hands over our hearts when we sing The Star-Spangled Banner. Our small ways of showing honor add up to big ways of showing pride and thanksgiving for our country–our one nation under God.

This Veterans Day, pause to remember those who serve in wartime and in peacetime, and to celebrate the wonderful freedoms we enjoy.

For more ways to get involved this Veterans Day, check out these awesome ideas at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/lessons_plans/veterans-day/

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Back to the Future

The previous post was all about technology. This time, we’re taking a few steps back in time–before the age of smartphones, before the Internet, before sliced bread.

We’re going back to a time when you couldn’t simply pick up the phone and call the funeral home to ask about a price for cremation or whether or not we have the body of Mr. John Doe.

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Image credit: Smithsonian.com; follow hyperlink to article

Imagine for a moment that you are homesteading in the wilderness and you have nothing to rely on but your neighbors. I don’t know how telegraphs actually worked, but let’s just say those haven’t been invented yet.

You wake up one morning and someone you love, someone you share a house with, has died. The body is stone cold and no matter how hard you cry or how loudly you scream, there is silence.

I’d venture to say panic sets in. What do you do? Who do you turn to? Do you start digging a hole in the dirt in the backyard? Do you bury your loved one and lay flowers on the grave? How are you going to move this body where it needs to go? Shouldn’t you wash and clothe the body before anyone else comes?

Even though many of us are not modern day pioneers, it’s possible you have encountered this feeling before. It may have been with a beloved pet you discovered dead in your home or in your yard. It may have even been an unexpected death of someone in your family. All of a sudden, time stops. You’re frozen in your tracks. Even though nowadays there are numbers to call and plenty of people to turn to, many of us don’t know what to do when we’re staring death in the face. Dialing the number to the ambulance or to a funeral home can take extreme bravery. Many times, it’s hard to articulate just what we need to say. We try to form words around, “Someone has died, come now,” and it comes out more like gibberish.

When the phone rings at the funeral home, there is absolutely no telling who or what is going to be on the other end of the line. It might be a nurse or a coroner or even a pastor calling to notify us of a death. It might be someone who Googled our funeral home to find out about how much it costs to be embalmed. It might be a florist shop calling for funeral arrangements so they’ll know when to deliver flowers. It might be a woman who woke up and found her husband’s body had turned cold in the night.

The person on the other end of the line might say, “How much does it cost to use the chapel? ,” followed by, “My son has died and I want to see about having a funeral.” After some conversation back and forth, we may hear, “I’m not sure where his body is right now.”

 It’s a scary place to be, not knowing what comes next. The funeral industry has been built on this very principle, on being available to help at a time of great need and uncertainty. As time marches on, people become more mobile and less apt to know who to turn to or where to go when a death occurs. Thankfully, many hospice and palliative care programs have been established to help ease the transition for end of life care. You can also rest assured knowing if you need answers, you can call the funeral home and we’ll do our best to help.

Whether we like to admit it or not, none of us are immune to dying. Death reaches us in ways we can’t predict and we are often left startled in its wake. Even in my short time as a funeral director, I’ve often been left speechless as I listen to complete strangers telling the story of the death of a loved one. It’s a truly humbling experience to walk those first few staggering steps into the planning of a funeral.

Think about some of your experiences surrounding the death of a loved one. Looking back, what are some of the surprises you came across? What or who do you recall being helpful? Church families, friends, nurses and doctors, funeral directors; many elements work together to shape the initial moments and days surrounding the loss of a loved one. Is there anything you wish had happened differently? Share these thoughts and stories with your family and friends; if you’re up to it, I’d be honored to hear them too.

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