Inside the sanctuary, all the men are wearing dark suits. Boutonnieres have been pinned on lapels and flowers have been placed carefully at the front of the altar. Most of the women are wearing dresses, and there are a few hats in the crowd; it’s a summer day in the South after all. A limousine pulls up to the front of the church and the driver gets out to open the door. The minister takes his post as the music starts. A small stack of programs rests in the vestibule, where they’ll stay until someone decides to pick them up and save a few in a special place. There is a congregational hymn today, and the organist is a little nervous about playing for such a large crowd. Nerves are on edge all around, in fact…these kinds of occasions bring out a strange mixture of emotions for most folks. When the service ends, everyone will gather to eat. They will tell stories and exchange hugs as they part saying, “We really should get together more often… Seems like we only see each other at weddings and funerals!”
The story parts ways here… There’s a fork in the road. Is it a wedding or a funeral?
If it’s a funeral, it could start while a limousine driver goes around the car to open the doors for the grieving family. They step out one by one and enter the sanctuary for the funeral. There is a eulogy and a song or two and the minister and family follow as pallbearers carry the casket down the stairs and place it in the hearse. The graveside service is brief, and afterwards, the family gathers for a meal and some time to reflect together. It could be an elderly widow laying her beloved husband to rest after a tough choice to leave his wedding band on as the casket was closed. It could be a child gone too soon from this world, a young mother who battled cancer for too long, or any number of circumstances. The family could be united in their grief or split for various and tragic reasons. In any case, it is likely crumpled Kleenexes will be found tucked in pockets days later. Flowers will be taken to the graveside and to someone’s home to sit on the hearth or on a table until it’s time for them to move on too. There is a quiet kind of ending to a funeral, a kind of silent grieving and uncertainty for what the future may hold.
But what if it’s a wedding? It could start with the bride opening the door before the limousine driver even gets around the car. She steps out onto the sidewalk and meets her father as they enter the vestibule. She has a death grip on her bouquet and her grandmother’s pearls around her neck. The lighting is perfect and his smile is too. Vows are exchanged, a kiss is shared, and the newly pronounced couple turns with faces beaming as they make their way down the aisle. Family and friends will gather afterwards to celebrate with eating and talking and dancing. The future is uncertain here too, but there is a promise of going towards it together.
Tears are shed at times like these whether they are tears of joy or tears of pain. Some may be a mixture of both.
One of my coworkers even quipped, “The only difference between your wedding and your funeral is that at your wedding, you see the flowers!”
It’s true that both types of events have seen changes over the recent years. Wedding planners and funeral directors are event specialists in an age of Pinterest inspired parties and Do-It-Yourself crafting. Engagement and wedding announcements in newspapers are all but a thing of the past; it is simply not part of the morning routine anymore to sit and read about the color of bridesmaids dresses or honeymoon destinations over a cup of coffee. We “Like” the pictures on Facebook after the fact. Obituaries may be headed in the same direction. We say, “Pull up the funeral home website and see when the service for Mrs. So-and-So is.” We even place orders for flowers online and can click on a link in an online obituary to fill out a memorial form on a charity’s webpage. Our online interactions have become integral to how we experience community. I would argue, however, that “lighting a candle” or signing the online guestbook on a funeral home’s memorial page is just not the same as going to the visitation or funeral. At times when it is impossible or understandably inconvenient to attend the service, these online interactions are valuable, and almost as personal as sending a card in snail mail.
It’s interesting that even in this age of technology and virtual community, we still seek to gather at times of great importance. We recognize the value of ceremony and we strive to be together for momentous occasions. There is cultural and personal push to mark life changes with a service or gathering of some kind. Weddings, baby showers, funerals, graduations; each is marked by loved ones coming to pay honor and respect to the change that is occurring. If we can’t be there in person, we feel a sense of loss and sadness. Even scrolling through the Facebook pictures leaves us with a twinge of regret at not attending. So when we can, we gather and we share; stories, laughter, smiles, and tears. We experience the moments together, and our connections live on, till death do us part.