Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend a funeral at an African American church. I did this as part of a school project that required us to attend a funeral “outside of our comfort zone.” I also did this out of sheer curiosity because, while it may not be something we really think about or draw attention to, churches and funeral homes are still very segregated. Knowing this, I called the funeral home handling the service beforehand to be sure my presence would be alright with the family and I proceeded to make my way to the church later in the afternoon. I nervously parked my car in the overcrowded lot and got out. Step one: complete.
As I walked towards the sanctuary, I felt as if I was entering a foreign country without guarantee of asylum. It wasn’t that I was afraid, necessarily. It was more of the fact that I felt very out of place. I was attending the funeral of a complete stranger and I had NO idea what to expect. I was also the only white person in sight. And I am a very white person at that. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I kept my sunglasses on until the last possible moment before I slid into a pew between two older women. I tried to maintain a semblance of confidence as I busied myself with adjusting my dress and slipping my cell-phone into my bag. The lady next to me leaned over and asked if I wanted to view the body. As she gestured towards the open casket at the front of the sanctuary I quietly demurred, preferring her to assume I was not comfortable with corpses instead of letting on that, no, in fact, I deal with bodies and funerals on a daily basis, but I was petrified to walk all the way to the front of the room full of peering strangers.
The service began. A booming voice proclaimed, “All rise!” A large choir entered the loft behind the pulpit, the preachers entered the sanctuary, and the funeral directors (dressed in matching suits) gathered the family in the back of the church. Over whispers and shuffling feet and a constant, low hum of the organ, a young pastor quoted scripture as he walked down the aisle. A group of about 20 women, all dressed in white, appeared behind him. They were all older and they were altogether beautiful. The women were followed by a group of about 20 men, all wearing black. I deduced they must be elders of the church as they took their seats at the front. The large family was led to view the body in the casket and one by one, they took their seats as well. As the organ music kept going, I slowly became aware of how long we had been standing. In a comforting, rhythmic voice, the pastor continued quoting scripture. Finally, the family was seated. As I sat back down on the pew, I felt more at ease.
The choir opened with a song and I watched as a few people stood and waved their hands along with the music. Stories were told, laughter was shared, tears were shed. Family, friends, and church members eulogized their loved one. There was another song, one that drew more of a crowd of people leaping to their feet, worshiping the Lord who had called one of His own home to rest from her labors. I found myself getting lost in the moment. I clapped along with the women beside me, proud to share in their joy and to know that even if we had little else in common, we worshiped the same God.
The young preacher got up again and spoke of how he could see the grief of the family for a beloved grandmother, mother, sister, and friend, but that he grieved for a different woman. He grieved for a woman he didn’t get the chance to really know. She had suffered from dementia since he had been called to the church a few years ago and he only knew this matriarch through the stories of her younger days. He spoke of her light and her faith and her unwavering trust that was passed along to her daughters, just like that of Naomi and Ruth. He spoke of God as her Keeper. He spoke and then he YELLED. There was some loud rejoicing and some loud praising and some loud singing, and while it was a little overwhelming for my Presbyterian eyes and ears, there is no doubt the Spirit was in that place. I swayed and smiled and clapped along until—close to two hours later— it was time to go. The funeral directors came and closed the casket as the family gathered ’round. They had to kind of push their way out of the crowd in a final ‘letting go.’ The women in white came forward, each taking a flower or arrangement with them on their way out of the church. The group of men and the family also exited, singing as they walked.
I dodged a few sideways glances as I exited the building, but I left that place knowing a woman I hadn’t known before. I knew her in the way the young pastor did, from the stories. It is not everyday that I see families and congregations come together for a joyful, pulsing celebration such as that. It was an honor to share in the service of such a valiant and beloved woman. And while it did take a few hours for my ears to stop ringing, I know that, given the chance, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Even if I stick out like a sore thumb.