An interfaith service for the bereaved
S Bartholomew's Hospital & S Joseph's Hospice Annual Memorial Service 2017
Rev 21:1 I saw a new heaven and a new earth
When I was a parish priest I took the funeral of a lady I had come to know quite well in the last few years of her life. In old age she had had bad feet, and she always wore trainers. It was our practice to invite the family to place objects on the coffin in the church to help them to remember their loved ones. This lady’s grandson brought her trainers, and put them on the coffin. “Me and my gran were the only ones who wore trainers,” he said. And with his black suit he wore his trainers to her funeral mass.
Things like that help: but they can also be so painful. The mementos mix, as a poet once said, memory and desire, and the mix can stir grief most terribly. Recently, at the funeral of a friend of mine, many of us who had met on our first day at college spontaneously brought photos, though no one had organized that we should. There we all were with big 80s hair partying and enjoying ourselves, and it was laughter mixed with tears as our middle aged selves looked back and gulped hard to think that our contemporaries have begun to pass, though we are surely too young yet to be gathering like this. And many here will be of far older generations, and far younger than mine, and you will know in your own way what it is to mix memory and desire, and the sting of grief which mars even the happy memories.
We are taught that there are stages to grief. That denial passes to anger; that we then fall into bargaining before the stage of depression and at last acceptance. We are rightly taught to move on through these stages, and there is much help from so many to help us to do so, and for that we are rightly grateful and pay tribute to those who serve us like this. And if you are stuck, do know that there is help and seek support to access it from your priest or your doctor.
What of the memories? Nostalgia clings to the past and the grief which we know at its passing. It can beguile us with some sort of happiness for a moment, as the years roll back and we think that for a moment we have conquered time, but it swiftly betrays, and we are plunged into sorrow and sadness. I recently preached at the funeral of a teacher of mine. Some of his other pupils were there; we all laughed together at the funny stories we shared. But as much as we were remembering our teacher, in a way what we were really doing was mourning our thirteen year old selves. Nostalgia is fundamentally selfish – it is about what I feel, what I want, my grief for the past which is lost, my fear of the future which is breaking upon me.
This is not to say we should not remember, and there is another kind of remembering which is altogether more healthy. Remembering with thanksgiving. Looking back, not to mope at what was, but to give thanks for what it all meant and means and continues to mean to us. A remembering which turns towards the future not in despair at what has been lost, but with joy and thanks for what is and will be because of our dear ones who have died. This way of remembering looks outwards to God and neighbour and helps me serve them better because of the love I have received and what I have learned from those whom we mourn.
For Christians memory with thanksgiving is directed to God who is the source of all life. We believe He has conquered death and opened the way to everlasting life through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those whose faith in God is in other forms will give thanks to God as they understand God to be, but for everyone of whatever faith this remembering with thanksgiving is the antithesis of nostalgia, and is healing and fulfilling. It is inspiring not of renewed grief, but of growing and deepening happiness as in and through God what has been lost is restored and our remembering ceases to be a reminder of what is now gone, and becomes the enjoyment and expansion of the love we still possess.
Christian theologians call this kind of memory anamnesis, and point to the moment on the night before He died that Jesus took bread and wine, and said, “do this in memory of me.” In that remembering the past blesses and transfigures the present and offers hope for the future. It is sadly not true that we can keep people alive by remembering them, and a harsh fact that over time memory fades. Memory is also mortal. But God is present with us when with thanksgiving we remember Him and with Him we stand at the threshold of heaven where memory and desire are emptied into loving possession. As a great novelist wrote: behold, we are not bound together to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.
And so I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The aged apostle remembered a vision, a fleeting experience of the past, which eluded his memory even as he watched such that he was commanded to write it down. But the memory was not to him a terrible grief-filled nostalgia for an ephemeral gift now snatched from his sight. No, his thanksgiving and orientation to God led to a confident rejoicing in what his lost vision meant not only for now, but for the future: See, I am making all things new; neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.