The community built at funeral lunches – Pastor Thoughts

This week I did something that I have not done in quite a while as a pastor. I presided at a funeral proper.

I was covering for a colleague on holidays. Something that pastors do for each other in case of just such an occurrence.

The day included a viewing, the service, a lunch and interment at the cemetery. While the pandemic has mostly eliminated this kind of extended gathering, it was long before 2020 that these full funeral days were becoming less common. Cremation and memorials have changed the rhythms and patterns of these events, in addition to unchurched families planning services for churched loved ones. 

A funeral with all the traditional pieces often takes the whole day. There is a lot of lingering and waiting throughout, as the whole gathered community moves from ritual moment to moment. There are the condolences and greeting of the family at the viewing, there is the remembrance and stories in the service, there is the visiting and community building during the lunch, there is the final goodbye at the graveside, maybe even mourners shovelling dirt over the casket themselves.

The day reminded me of funerals at my first call, a rural community outside of Edmonton that I began serving in 2009, but that was still frozen in a time period of a much earlier era. 

Part of me thought back nostalgically. Funerals for many congregations and communities are about community, fellowship and connection as much as they are about mourning and grief. Funeral lunches can get quite raucous with laughter!

And for a certain generation of church goer, this a familiar pattern of life. Coming together at a time of death has a way of pushing aside everything else: all the to-do lists that occupy our time most days, all the crises in the world (that are ultimately about avoiding death). When that casket arrives, when death itself enters the room, even things like pandemics and wars take a backseat to grief. 

For much of my time as a pastor, I have been serving congregations and communities who are grieving the slow degradation and loss of these familiar rituals of community. As these once common parts of communal life together continue to disappear, building and maintaining community within the church and beyond becomes more and more challenging. 

Maybe this week for the first time, I felt that twinge of loss too. Or maybe I glimpsed just what so many folks have been grieving for a long time in the church. The generations before us used to know how to come together as a community – often with sandwiches and coffee – and support one another through the ups and downs of life. Before the pandemic it was often a struggle to pull off a funeral and lunch. Now, we may be close to losing that capacity entirely. 

Or more accurately, all the habits and skills we had for being communities of support and care are going by the wayside right at a time when we could use them the most. Being church together does not and will not just happen organically or unintentionally as it once did. 

Today in 2022, community takes work. Community takes intentionality. Community happens when we do it on purpose, it will not happen by accident. 

Yes, there is a certain comfort and nostalgia for a community that knows how to walk through a day of mourning together without a lot of planning. 

There is also a certain part of us that doesn’t like that community takes more planning. We don’t like appointments and schedules and lists. We long for the days when people just showed up without notice and neighbourly intrusions were welcomed (except when you actually do show up at someone’s house unannounced these days, and they are mortified!).

Day long funerals were and are lovely ways for communities to come together and care for each other but they are increasingly relics of times past. 

Zoom meetings, doodle polls, Facebook events, texting to schedule phone calls and limited availability are here to stay. 

Community will only happen on purpose. Community will only be built through planning and intentionality. 

As we continue our Lenten journey through the wilderness, I cannot help but see that churches and communities are walking through a wilderness of community now that is calling on us to find new ways to come together, new ways to offer that care and support for each other, new ways to be the Body of Christ for each other and for the world.

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