Oh, the places you will go: Reflections from a multi-faith funeral

Looking at Psalm 121, Karie Charlton reflects that we are all called to respond to each other and participate in the Universal Heart.

Pathway on green hill

Baby B’s interfaith funeral was sad and beautiful and full of love. B was the grandson of one of my Days for Girls (DfG) team members, a group of volunteers that meets regularly to create sustainable menstrual supplies for those in need. We found out that his heart was not fully developed after his mom went in for a routine exam during her pregnancy.

For nearly two years, our DfG community held this family in the light, kept them in our thoughts, and put them on prayer lists in Christian communities, mosques and synagogues. Each time we shared the update about B and Mom’s health, we heard a little about how everyone practiced their spirituality in a time like this. We hugged each other a lot. We hugged Grandma the most.

B spent most of his life in the NICU but did get to come home for a few glorious months and cooed, slobbered, and learned to eat and drink. His smile lit up everyone around him. We loved seeing pictures of his chubby cheeks and videos of his sister singing to him.

B’s mom and dad had to make impossible choices all the time. When his health took a turn and he had to return to the NICU, it seemed like just another hard day. But the doctors determined that it was time to make the most difficult decision of all, Mom and Dad opted to save the lives of other children by donating B’s organs.

Baby B. Photo contributed.

B’s mom is spiritual but not religious. B’s dad is Muslim. They have Christian family members, including B’s grandma, so I was asked to be part of the interfaith funeral as a Presbyterian pastor. I did a brief but meaningful Christian service at the funeral home, then we traveled to the mosque, and those of us who weren’t Muslim were invited to come in and observe the prayers and the imam explained to us about their traditions around death and burial. He talked about a prophet who lost children, the way they wash the body, and that at the cemetery we would be placing B in the ground in a shroud and positioned to face east. We watched at the graveside as B’s uncle and close relatives held him and carefully placed him in the ground, laid wood over him and then buried him completely.

When my community asked what to say on a day like this, I reminded them that we don’t need to say anything. We just need to be present, and we did that with tears and hugs.

The most meaningful words spoken were by B’s mom, she talked about being faced with impossible choices but making the best decision with the information they had and that they would do it all again. Then she read a section of Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Suess, a gift from the NICU nurses.

“On and on you will hike, And I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are.”

“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!” 

Perhaps one of the reasons this reading resonated with me is because it connected to the Scripture I shared with B’s friends and family at the funeral home, Psalm 121. Psalm 121 is the Oh the Places You’ll Go from our scriptures. It is the psalm associated with pilgrimages and journeys. All of us have been on a journey with B and we continue this journey of love and grief together.

As one of the psalms of ascent, it was originally used by those on a journey towards Jerusalem and continues to be used by those on various pilgrimages. The first phrase, “I lift eyes to the hills,” refers to looking towards Jerusalem, looking to God’s glory, or focusing on God’s presence. This pilgrimage psalm affirms God dwells everywhere, in all hearts, and always. We can find comfort in this psalm for any journey, pilgrimage or not, that has us looking for support through all the ups and downs. God’s love is not fragile or fickle, God’s love is constant and abundant.

This psalm brings comfort to those who mourn and reminds all of us that God is a constant, caring presence. The psalmist does not suggest that God prevents us from experiencing hardship, sorrow, or loss, but the promise is that we are never alone in our grief. This psalm can be a hug when we feel alone. This psalm can be heard as an encouragement to love as God loves, to be present for our neighbors in their joys and in their sorrows along our journey together. To respond, to and participate in the Universal Heart, is the work we are called to both now and forevermore.

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