Grounded

   As the preacher steps forward to shake hands with the son seated in the front row, I hear the clang, clang, clang of the tent against it’s metal poles. The sound is welcome amidst the silence which followed the closing prayer over the grave. The casket has yet to be lowered, but we cannot avoid that task much longer. I follow him so I can have a quick discussion with the family before we continue our work for the burial. I must ask them if they prefer to stay seated or if they would rather go on to the lunch waiting for them before we start.
     This particular conversation takes many forms depending on the circumstances, but it is always one of high honor.
Ignoring the many eyes fixed on me as I make my way forward, I bend down to address the front row. One knee usually hits the ground, and I choose to plant it there momentarily. My position allows me a new perspective. Instead of standing off to the side, praying the rain holds off or the flowers don’t topple over, I am now humbled, intent, concerned about the emotions and the people right in front of me. There are almost always tears to face. Sometimes my words are met with blank stares and I feel the need to slowly repeat myself.
     The finality of the moment is weighty. It’s importance is not lost on me. My knee rests until an answer is given, and I stand to make an announcement of the verdict.
     There is a palpable sense of dread in the air. Some eyes in the crowd look almost scared. I am never sure if they fear having to stand witness to the burial or if they fear being asked to leave.
     As I stand, I instinctively reach to brush off my knee. Dust clings there as if to remind me I am still stuck here on this earth. There is something which approaches holy that happens as I stand between the living and the dead; between the now and the not yet. I may be echoing author Thomas Lynch by saying, “We’ve come as far as we can go…”
     It’s true: there is not much left to do. This body will be committed back to the earth on which we stand. I cannot help but think, however, there is so much more yet to be learned. Whether that earth is covered by artificial turf or if it is washed over by ocean waves lapping the seashore, it is all the same. We ultimately come to a place where we can no longer deny the reality which is set before us. The casket is lowered or the ashes are spread, but we must eventually move. Grief will endure long after the body is out of sight, but we can learn to approach each tomorrow with a deeper understanding of our movement as we walk with each other upon this sacred ground.

Coming to you …not live… from Ohio!

This past week I had the opportunity to present at the Ohio Funeral Directors Association annual convention in Columbus! This was my first big speaking event, and it was an honor to interact with mortuary students and young funeral directors at the unique venue for the presentation: Easton’s Funny Bone comedy club. If you’re interested in what I had to say, check out the audio recording while you’re on the go (click to play below). If you have more time on your hands than you know what to do with, I am also including the full length PowerPoint recording to download for your viewing pleasure…

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The Beginning of the End- Starting out in Funeral Service

Unfamiliar

The three of them storm into the office a little after 4:00 in the afternoon. A gust of wind slams the door behind them, and they all but cower under the fluorescent lights. I introduce myself to each of them, shaking their hands, willing them to be somewhat easy to get to know. None of the three even tells me their name.

I assume one of the women is a sister because I have talked with her on the phone. She called about twenty minutes ago to say she was leaving the hospital and needed to have her brother cremated.

I am trying to meet them where they are. They have never done this before, and I cannot blame them for lack of trust or even lack of basic formalities, such as telling me their names.

My words land slowly but deliberately to fill the awkward silence. Instead of hustling them away into the conference room, I decide to stay standing in the entryway for a moment longer. My eyes glance toward the floor as I extend my condolences for their loss. They do not respond verbally, but the man’s eyes begin to look away from his cellphone. Progress.

I explain that we will go over some paperwork for the death certificate and for the cremation. They follow me into the arrangement room. We discuss the particulars for a while, and I hand the sister a form to sign. She has been taking notes so I do not offer her my pen. She signs the form with her pen and I step out of the room to make a photocopy. When I walk back in I overhear the man asking for the pen she has been using. She passes it to him and he makes a few notes. I eyeball the container of pens in the middle of the table just to check that it is well stocked. There are plenty to go around so I don’t force the issue.

As we talk I notice their tensions begin to soften. They ask some great questions, and I fill in as many gaps as I can. I learn they are all siblings of the deceased. They are from a different state and are leaving in the morning.

Our meeting draws to a close. As the brother walks out the door, I call after him by name when I see his cellphone still sitting on the table. I rush to return it to him, and he thanks me.

After they are gone I notice the pen the siblings shared is still sitting on the table. I pick it up to find the name of a hotel emblazoned on the side.
Tonight will be their last night to stay in that unfamiliar room. They will head home tomorrow to a place where they will all be greeted by name. Their homecoming, however, will be without their brother, and they will continue living without his familiar presence. I slip the hotel pen into my pocket. I am sure they left it behind accidentally, and it will be quickly forgotten.

Our time together today was brief, but it was part of a story they will not soon forget. I hope they left here today with more than a disposable pen. I hope the unfamiliar they encountered here became the slightest bit more bearable, if only for a moment.