Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room

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

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.

Image credit: http://www.coca-colacompany.com

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/

A-tisket, A-tasket, a ….Wine Cask and a Casket?

A quick Google search for “Funeral Catering will lead you to links to funeral homes far and wide which are embracing new opportunities in this changing business. Many larger funeral homes offer full catering options done in-house, or have partnerships with local providers and restaurants who will step in and cater to an individual family’s wants and needs. Visitation rooms double as banquet halls, and options range from appetizers to buffets to formal seated dinners. The bottom line: it’s convenient.

Wouldn’t you like to arrive to a continental breakfast the morning before a funeral? Trust me, your funeral director would be glad to help with the arrangements.

Food at funerals is not a recent phenomenon, but “catering” in the proper sense is. Traditionally– at least in my neck of the woods known as “The South”– church groups and friends provide meals upon meals for grieving families at their home and typically offer a meal for the family at the church before or after the funeral service. While this is still a popular tradition in most Southern communities, in other parts of the country, times are a-changin.’ Part of the reason for this is that we are an increasingly mobile society. People often travel in for funerals, thus they don’t have a place other than a hotel to host friends or have a meal. I’ve even had out-of-town families ask me for directions to local restaurants as they leave a graveside.

Also, many folks don’t have close ties to a church anymore, and if they do, the church may not “do” meals in the way that most small Southern churches do. There aren’t as many devoted souls willing to handle the “chicken money” or whip up a fresh batch of biscuits or a hot dish of macaroni at the drop of a hat. In fact, many classic covered dishes have given way to quick and easy options such as deli trays and even– brace yourself– pizza.

…There may or may not have been a committee of little old church ladies who collectively rolled over in their graves just now…

Whatever kinds of food are set out on the table, whatever the venue, and whatever the relationship of the cooks and servers to the grieving family, one thing stays the same: food beckons time and space to gather. The table is a place to sit and eat, feeding the body while nourishing the soul. Stories are told over the clanging of forks and clinking of spoons, and memories are shared over slices of lemon pound cake. The reality, however, is that traditions shift, and it is easy to see that the funeral business is becoming more secularized in response to cultural changes. Sadly, the days of the funeral luncheon at the church may be numbered, but there remains a demand for creative yet simple alternatives for gathering and eating together.

I was not at all surprised to see that a funeral home in Florida recently added a wine cellar to their building. The proprietor markets it as a “different way to grieve,” and it is offered as an alternative gathering place for a visitation or celebration of life (with or without a casket present).

The wine cellar has garnered international attention, and honestly, it seems like a neat idea. Guests are treated to a glass of wine over casual conversation–almost an extension of the comfort of being in one’s own home with close friends. After all, isn’t that what people usually want when they’re hurting? I’m sure there are plenty of naysayers who frown upon such things (some who have a legitimate claim not to ‘drown one’s sorrows’), but I think it’s representative of changing times.

Options such as catering are partly a business decision on the funeral home end of things, a way of generating revenue while also offering a meaningful and convenient opportunity for clients. Catering is a natural extension of personalization for funerals, going so far as setting a different atmosphere, one that will not likely be forgotten by those who attend. One of the beautiful things about such personalization is that the possibilities are virtually limitless. Instead of wine, for example, it could be a grill night, or a dessert social, or even a bonfire with s’mores… It seems like any kind of creative flair sure would take the bother out of standing in a visitation line, don’t you think?

You can read more about the wine cellar here. What do you think? What kind of food could you enjoy at funerals?