Her name was Grace. She was homebound when I started at my church. Actually she hadn’t been out of her house in years. Grace had Alzheimer’s and had slowly been losing her memories. Grace couldn’t hear very well, she couldn’t walk and needed help with every function of daily life.
I visited Grace regularly and brought her communion. I attempted to talk with her, but I don’t think she could hear most of what I said. She could only handle short visits.
I went for one of my regular visits and for the first time no one answered the door. Grace never left her home, so I was concerned. I called her caregiver and found that the phone had been disconnected. I contacted the church members who tried to keep an eye on Grace, and they didn’t know what was going on.
Grace didn’t have any living family. A neighbor, who continued to be in an out of jail, had guardianship of Grace. He paid a live-in caregiver, but the church took it upon itself to also watch out for her. Each day I grew more concerned. Did her caregiver just leave her? Is she in the house, unable to contact anyone? I called the police for a welfare check and it was clear when we entered the house that no one had been there in awhile. Still the question remained, where is Grace?
A couple of weeks later I finally got the call that Grace had been found. By luck and the grace of God, we found her in a nursing home. She was safe and cared for, under the protection of a senior adult agency. A few short months later, Grace peacefully and quietly joined the church triumphant.
Grace died at 103 years old with no family and few living friends. There were no plans for a service. She was to be cremated and placed in the ground by her deceased husband and son.
A church member called me and asked if we could do a service. Grace didn’t have family and friends, but she did have a church that loved her. On a spring morning a handful of us gathered at the cemetery. Immediately I noticed her gravestone: a joint marker with her husband. She had already had it engraved and it listed her birth date and then her death date as 19??. She never expected to live this long.
I had thought about Grace often and her difficult situation. I can’t imagine not having living family members or someone there to watch over me in my old age. Without a family to plan the service, I came with very little prepared. I thought I would read a few Scripture passages, say a prayer and commit her ashes to the ground. During the time that I normally would give a homily I shared what it meant to be the body of Christ and to be claimed by God, even when it seems like no one will claim us. I then asked the folks gathered to talk about Grace; after all, they knew her so much better then I.
The stories they told were beautiful – stories of grace and love. They testified to the ways that Grace’s life showed the love of Christ. They spoke of her service to the church and her amazing baking. I felt blessed to witness their love for Grace.
I’ve done a lot of funeral services in my few years of ministry. I’ve spent hours agonizing over what to say and how to convey the power of resurrection through Jesus Christ. But no service has left the impact that Grace’s graveyard committal did. Because during that service the body of Christ gathered to say that we don’t go through life or death alone. The body of Christ testified that even in the midst of turmoil, difficulty and loss, grace is found. Despite the evidence to the contrary, Grace did have a family, not bound by blood, but by faith. This family showed up in the cold to gather around a grave and proclaim resurrection. For that is the call of the church – to accompany God’s children on the journey of life and death, naming grace among us.
KRISTIN STROBLE serves as the pastor of Heritage Presbyterian Church in Youngstown, Ohio. She enjoys coffee, books, running and spending time outdoors.