“Speak, Mary, Declaring What You Saw, Wayfaring”

Musings on a Funeral Procession

“By means of the funeral rites, it has been the practice of the Church, as a tender mother, not simply to commend the dead to God but also to raise high the hope of its children and to give witness to its own faith in the future resurrection of the baptized with Christ.”1 These words from the Congregation of the Divine Worship dated in 1969 introduce the revised liturgical order of Christian funerals. This liturgical rite, whether in its older expressions or its present form is intended to comfort and console the Christian faithful, on the one hand, and on the other hand, is geared toward challenging them by arousing them to faith and calling them to conversion. Even though more than fifty years have transpired since they were penned, these words testify to the perennial regula fidei (norm of faith) that has been handed on from age to age and brought many into intimate contact with “the firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:2).

If, in the first moment, “Christians celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just,”2 as the General Introduction to the same liturgical book indicates; and if, in a second pass, “[t]he Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins,”3 should those still making their pilgrimage on earth not also derive instruction in the way that leads to fulness of life in the solemn procession to the grave?

Adapting the language from a brief discourse about Christian funerary practices in ancient Rome to language that speaks to the Church of today, we read in the General Introduction:

“When the service in the church [concludes], the body [is] carried in solemn procession to the grave or tomb. During the final procession the congregation [sings] psalms praising the God of mercy and redemption and antiphons entrusting the deceased to the care of the angels and saints. The funeral liturgy [mirrors] the journey of human life, the Christian pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem.”4

There seems to be nothing more poignant, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, than a funeral procession — and a Christian funeral, at that — to elicit and re-propose a whole host of questions that portray the scope and breadth of human life. We might consider how it places in the spotlight the relationship of faith and culture, and of the sacred and civil orders. Likewise, we could ponder the way in which it brings to the forefront memory and identity, tradition and family life, and the apparent abandonment or lack thereof. We might well turn our thoughts toward an encroaching sense of homelessness and a piercing desire to belong, born, it would seem, out of a strange tension between nationalism and globalization on the macro level, and a hostility between the emancipated self and the dependent self on the micro level. In an overly reductive way, it would seem that a Christian funeral brings us back to an ancient question raised long ago: What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem? In other words, what does the drama of everyday human life and its finality have to do with divine revelation, and vice versa?

Such is the case, I would submit, in light of a particular funeral at which I presided in the late fall of 2020. Every twist and turn of that solemn procession took on new hues and varied textures, begging for a rediscovery — or better yet, a new reception — of how all things hold together and attain a new consistency in the risen humanity of Jesus Christ.

A certain unmarked Tahoe led our mourning procession toward its earthen destination, pacing the sun, hidden as it were, behind drizzly clouds. The slate gray color of the truck conveyed an ominous truth disrupted only by the red and blue lights flickering in its rear window.

I, like a prior, fell in line behind the sheriff’s abbatial lead. The white stucco church vanished from sight as we rounded the corner with hearse and fleet trailing behind. The near final phase of our sacred liturgy for this much-loved matriarch had begun, matched only in its grandeur by a peculiar secular liturgy quite familiar in the rural stretches of northwest Florida. A coordinated artistry was unfolding; not an abstract integralism of altar and throne — or in this case, of stole and badge — but of wood and screws, and tears and flowers, of heart-speaking-to-heart, and cries lifted up to a “sacred realm” and to a “sacred Thou.” It was the communio (communion) of the cosmic liturgy witnessed in the intertwining of the supernatural and the natural.

As we turned the corner, the green-clad acolytes of the sheriff’s office blocked traffic and submitted their humble acknowledgement with right hands pressed firmly to their chests. For who? A fellow citizen? A colleague? A stranger? A friend? Were they known by her? Was she known by them? A familiar interlocutor, perhaps, from their earlier years? Was she an instructor, an interrogator to the ethic of their deputized craft? Or a feminine prophet with sage advice for a well-distinguished life?

I was struck by the sight of the next posse of deputies we met. Without a second thought they brought to a halt all the traffic we could ask. Like a bolt of lightning brightening the sky, I failed not to note the fancied way life slowed, and then suddenly stopped, under a single traffic light. The life-blood of the city, its only arteries, were momentarily clogged. But a moment of congestion was all that was needed to compellingly elicit due regard from all.

As we continued down the road, I looked in my rearview mirror again. I spied a few of our cars with emergency blinkers on. I, too, had had mine on from the beginning and felt a hidden unity with those familiar with this local custom. I briefly lamented the few who were unaware, feeling their absence from this impressively simple sign. The white lights on either side looked like guides flanking the procession, accompanying us to our journey’s end. They flashed at different rates, breaking the metronomic rhythm of country fences and highway reflective panels. These blinkers reminded me of a Gospel passage a few weeks back:

[T]he kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. (Mt 25:1-4).

Were we conscious that we were on the way to the wedding feast of the Lamb? Were we duly vigilant up to this point, worthy to join in this procession?

As we continued down our black-topped road, first we passed the city elementary school, then the middle school, and finally, the county high school. I pondered what our masked young people were learning that day. Perhaps some were repeating their ABCs, and others their 1, 2, 3s. Then again, some might have been discussing Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” while others were straining to defend their budding political minds. Were some being taught about active shooter procedures in light of the Columbine era I lived through — and the Parkland of their own — or others using social media when their attention ought to be elsewhere?

I applied my mind further, as we passed the last of these “academies,” contemplating the truths that cannot be commoditized, that transcend the “buffered self,” and bring about an “interior, spiritual Copernican revolution” — if I might borrow from Barron and Ratzinger. What would these students be taught about a life well-lived, if they saw this convoy of ours? Would they be justly mentored to engage all else in light of this procession that, perhaps, they themselves will one day make?

Lost in these thoughts, I was suddenly brought to my senses when the sheriff immediately cut to the left. He crossed the opposing lane, coming to a hard stop beside a simple, unassuming path carved out by a few tires. I had seen it before, this path that led into some unknown virgin parcel of land now marred by the fury of Hurricane Michael. At that time the path was swamped with cars. This time I began the flood.

I hurried down the road, questioning if I was going the right way. No one followed, and no one led. Was this something of the well-worn path penned so eloquently by Robert Frost?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same . . . 5

Finally, the breath I held in foreboding humiliation broke its constraint as the hearse turned and lumbered crudely in the distant wake. Its presence signaled we were near, which, in turn, unlocked the suspended tension of my fear.

The family cemetery we entered was five generations full now, part of a four-thousand acre land grant from the early 1800s. I would learn the history and lore of those buried there—how 19-year-old “Uncle Billy” wanted to be laid to rest in this spot as he died from leukemia; how Papa Ica became the county clerk of the court, when “he had no business doing so,” being himself unfamiliar with financial matters; how his brother, Samuel Bethea, assumed the position next; how a tortoise had recently burrowed beneath Sam’s headstone, causing it to fall into a twelve-inch sinkhole and splendidly impeding the last half of his tombstone’s epithet; how Emily Atkins Stone knew “who’s-who,” positioning her husband, Silas, to stump and run for county tax collector. Would the grandchildren of the recently deceased want to be buried here with their surviving parents, rounding out a sixth and seventh generation?

Before we went our separate ways, two adult granddaughters wanted to sing a song in final tribute to their grandmother, a song she cherished; one which fittingly expressed her wily, irascible spirit. Their soprano voices soared as they filled the wooded theater with Sutton Foster’s score:

Let me run though a field in the night

Let me lift from the ground till my soul is in flight.

 

Let me sway like the shade of a tree

Let me swirl like a cloud in a storm on the sea.

 

Wish me on my way

Through the dawning day […]6

This matriarch evidently had a spirit too broad and deep for her home town. Her soul was too restless and driven by wanderlust. The seemingly numberless days that unrolled before her finally revealed their finitude when her son begged her to come home. It was a plea to return not only to the town she tried to escape, but also to rest in the family’s dwelling place, until Christ would awaken her when he comes again.

What was this sense of homelessness and home-boundwardness I felt watching all this transpire, and knowing the background story to it all? I began to ask myself a whole host of questions: Where was I from and where have I gone? To whom did I belong, and who belonged to me . . . Or better yet, to whom do I belong and who belongs to me? Where am I now, and where am I called to be?

As I turned to go to my car, I caught a glance of another headstone not far away. I spied a bit of counsel chiseled on the back, which I learned was a cherished verse to the one asleep below. This passage from Rudyard Kipling kept me company while I embarked on my journey home:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distant run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!7

  1. Gut, Benno Cardinal, “Decree,” Congregation for Divine Worship, Protocol number 720/69 in Order of Christian Funerals, Trans. International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc. (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1989): xi.
  2. Order of Christian Funerals, “General Introduction,” no. 5, ibid., 3.
  3. Order of Christian Funerals, “General Introduction,” no. 6, 3.
  4. Order of Christian Funerals, “General Introduction,” no. 42,11 (emphasis mine).
  5. Frost, Robert, “The Road Not Taken.” Accessed October 3, 2021. https://www.robertfrost.org/the-road-not-taken.jsp.
  6. Lyrics.com, STANDS4 LLC, 2021. “Flight.” Accessed October 3, 2021. https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/15594736/Megan+McGinnis.
  7. Kipling, Rudyard, “If.” Accessed October 3, 2021. www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if.
Fr. Richard L. Schamber About Fr. Richard L. Schamber

Fr. Richard L. Schamber is a priest of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee and was ordained in 2007. He is presently a student at the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum (a.k.a. "Augustinianum") in Rome, Italy, currently in the propaedeutic year leading into the Licentiate in Theology and Patristic Sciences.

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