Recently when my cousin Lois visited my father in a nearby nursing home, his Alzheimer’s seemed to prevent him from recognizing her. Suddenly, however, he called her “Shusta,” and when I asked her what it meant she said it was a nickname he had for her when she was a little girl some 70 years ago (the Dutch word for “sister” is zuster.)
I thought about this experience as I stood with my family at my dad’s grave on May 20 in the cemetery in my hometown in Williamson, N.Y. I had never heard him use that word before and I wondered what else I had missed about him over his 95 years. His ashes were buried next to my mother’s and by those of his brother, my Uncle Maynard. Everybody called Maynard “Shorty” and his stone was marked by an American flag since he served in the Navy during World War II.
As we gathered there for committal prayers, many thoughts were in our minds. Some had not seen my father in a long time since his dementia made communication difficult and painful. Maybe my other cousin Amy remembered his great sense of humor, or my children recalled how much he loved to play around with them and how generous he was with encouragement. Probably we all wondered when we would have an experience like this again. For our 9-year-old granddaughter Schuyler, it was her first funeral. At this point, the significance of the prayer that begins “O God, before whom all generations rise and pass away” was not lost.
As I looked around at all the headstones, I realized how much I miss my dad already, and how much I have missed him for years as his disease slowly erased his memory. Glancing around I saw the names of many other people I grew up with — neighbors, church members, folks who were on my paper route, customers I fitted at Hodges’ Shoe Store on Main Street, and my high school coach. Although I have performed more than 150 funerals in my ministry, the following service and the reception at the church were both very moving. The words of Scripture brought hope, and the surrounding cloud of witnesses in the presence of the congregation was supportive. Many people listed acts of service to the church and community by my father that he had never mentioned.
Death, as someone said recently, is 100 percent guaranteed for all of us. It is not a tragedy but an inevitability, and we should not see it as a calamity or a failure. But I hope that there is more to it than final weakness and the victory of a lingering disease. Maybe it is wishful thinking, but if the New Testament stories about Jesus’ personal experiences with his disciples after the Resurrection are true, we really can really hope somehow to find each other again, if not in a physical body, at least in the recognizable form Paul calls “a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). Maybe we will all gather around in some kind of circle, share memories and laughs, reconnect as neighbors, find a way in Christ to forgive enemies, and even relocate lost sisters and brothers by name. As church leaders, the way we comfort those who grieve can reflect the hope that the experience of being in one body is not something that ends at the grave. As the prayer says, “Give us faith to see beyond touch and sight some sign of your kingdom, and where vision fails to trust your love which never fails. … Give us good hope in Jesus, so we may bravely walk our earthly way, and look forward to glad heavenly reunion; … .”