Friday, October 3, 2014

Life and death in a faith community

After five years, I decided it was time to officially seek membership in my Quaker Meeting. Being named to the burial committee was the clincher. You HAD to be a member to participate on that committee and I very much wanted to be part. So, I wrote a request letter, was assigned an affirming clearness committee for membership and joined with my daughters. We were warmly welcomed one Sunday along with a my friend, Jill, and her daughters. I covet that photo of the six of us.

Borrowed from Cincinnati Friends Meeting website
I took my time seeking membership because I felt truly called to this community. My mother had suggested I would like the simplicity of the worship, my then year-and-a-half-year old awoke one morning proclaiming "Mommy, I know Jesus" and relief from a car accident sent me to Cincinnati Friends Meeting. I was eased in by my childhood Methodist minister, who was serving as interim. When the pianist played "'Tis a Gift to be Simple," there was no question I was home.

Papa Paul sealed the deal when I noticed his "Cincinnati Mortuary School" polo and we struck up a conversation around the funeral industry. He was my first friend within the Friends and we'd bonded over death.

Within a year and I half I was introduced to spiritual nurture (formation) and helping lead small groups, which I lovingly tended for 12 years. My daughter and I were embraced; I was encouraged to keep in her worship, even the morning the minister rhetorically asked "What would you do?" reading a passage about Noah and my daughter began singing "Rain, rain go away." I was aghast; they were charmed.

I was so comfortable that I didn't feel I needed a committee to tell me I belonged. Not, at least, until I felt the urge to serve on the burial committee and membership was a qualification. So, I braced for an inquisition and, quite contrarily, was affirmed in my faith and community.

Ten years later and I am still on the burial committee. We don't meet regularly, though several years ago orchestrated a walking tour of Spring Grove Cemetery and our Quaker section. Rarely, I'll handle a plot selection for pre-need. This week, I was called on to help with minimal arrangements at need. Though I didn't understand that during the first conversation.

Barbara, always nurturing me and both of my daughters, left a phone message saying it was an emergency. I called right away to learn she needed help navigating the cemetery office labyrinth. I assumed she was preparing for her husband's eventual need as he had been declining. I was able to get the ball rolling from home and before I walked out the door for the studio that morning.

Spring Grove sent a pleasant response remarking that Barbara and her daughter would be in at noon. Hum, I thought, guess Barb is really serious about getting this done. Last time we spoke, she'd said Ed was slowly deteriorating.

I had not seen Ed in a long time, Maybe not since a Friend's funeral a few years ago. He'd struggled with dementia for decades, long before anyone knew how to treat Alzheimer's. Barbara, a skilled and well-educated nurse, had been his caretaker. But I so remember how eloquently he gave vocal ministry in my earlier days at the Meeting. His voice was rich and sweet, with a resonance that made you know Spirit was using his gift. While I can't remember specifically anything he said (which is true of most vocal ministry, especially my own), I  knew that he spoke truth. He was such a gentle soul, always inquiring about my girls.

Barbara called me back and we chatted some more, She was grateful for the way in which the cemetery personal had treated her and her daughter. Mostly, she wanted to alert me to a potential problem in our section of Spring Grove, which arose when she was debating how many spaces to reserve for her family. "Well, it's not like you need them soon," I casually and thoughtlessly commented. "No, not til next week," she responded. "Hold it, Barbara, am I missing something. How IS Ed?" Turns out he had died early that morning.

Barbara never ceases to amaze me in all that she does, the many and scattered people she cares for, how she picks herself back up and musters unlimited time and energy for others ... in addition to Ed. It must be her deep faith that carries her. She's a fountain.

When I asked if she minded talking about how he died, she said no. Being a nurse, she is very practical. She said he'd been restless and saying "help me, help me," so she went over and told him she had done all that she could and it was God's turn. "Ask God for peace." she'd advised. With that he'd settled down and eventually took his last breath.

I think it's a beautiful story and one of the reasons I feel honored to serve on the burial committee, even though my contribution is minimal. One last little testament.

When we'd held the walking tour, which was fabulous thanks to a well-informed and lively docent, Ruby arrived with her husband and sister-in-law in tow. She'd fibbed a little to get her spouse to ride down from Wilmington because she was bent on reserving their family spaces. As I sat in the room with the trio, I had a flash forward of when those spaces would be utilized and was so grateful for that one moment to help connect them.

I've never minded funerals, walking close up at the visitation and directly expressing condolences to survivors. I have always had a sense of calm, peacefulness and that Spirit was extra close to mourners.

I enjoyed connecting with funeral directors when I was employed at Batesville Casket Company in marketing. They were such a caring and dedicated group, so respectful of the living and dead. My favorite work there, however, was with noted thanatologist Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who runs the Center for Life and Loss Transition in Ft. Collins, CO. He taught me so much about grief and why ritual and knowing what to do when we don't know what to do is so important. I miscarried during this time, so the wisdom became personal.

Death is a part of life, one modern culture isolates. For it is the survivors who already feel isolated and need tending.

• What are my feelings around death?
• What are my experiences of death?
• Where have I witnessed God in the process?
• What gifts have I tapped in times like these?
• How do I comfort others?

my Meeting
gave me life
and freedom to
explore my

decide who
God is to me,
and experience
the Christ energy

so why is that
the chance to
serve it by
dealing with
death finally
me to make
what I felt

where God
places us and
what she puts
in our hearts

BTW: If you have any interest in Quakerism and happen to be in Cincinnati, my Meeting (church) is hosting a series of sessions for safely exploring Quakerism. The first is next week, Tuesday, Oct. 7 at 7 p.m., 8075 Keller Rd., Cincinnati, OH  45243. The topic is faith and local action and I'll be talking about my journey with Artsy Fartsy Saturdays. More info at www.cincinnatifriends.org

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