If I were to compile a list of a minister’s pet peeves, it would include funeral planning with family members who have no idea of their departed loved one’s wishes. I pass no judgment on grown children, or spouses, or siblings who, in the midst of their grief have to remember favorite songs, or that scripture passage that Mama always loved. Such details do not come easily to mind when your heart is breaking. But having actually witnessed a brother and sister trying to recall their mother’s very favorite hymn, and then turning to me and explaining, “It’s the one about Jesus,” I always did my best to encourage my parishioners to plan for their deaths, while they can make their wishes known.
A few years after my ordination, I advertised an upcoming Sunday forum hour, “Planning your own funeral.” Due to the subject matter, I assumed a smaller than normal crowd. I set up twenty chairs and prepared some planning handouts. That Sunday, we ended up with over a hundred parishioners at the forum, lots of scrambling for more chairs and a last-minute reprint of our worksheets. Over the years, the series expanded to include our music director who kindly provided musical backup as I convened the opportunity to think about favorite hymns, to discuss passages from Scripture that might be particularly relevant or comforting for mourners, to explain burial options, working with funeral homes, and holding funeral receptions at the church. Each participant was given a packet of information and three copies of their planning worksheet. We always offered to file one copy in the church office to save their heirs the trouble of finding it. Planning ahead offered the peace of mind that the departed’s wishes would be known, if not always heeded.
Almost a quarter century after ordination, I am as well acquainted with death as the living can be. I have watched people cling to life and seen many eager to let go. I have seen hospital monitors go still, and listened for the breath that didn’t come. I have been both confidante and confessor as the dying wrestled with meaning and mystery. I have cried with mourners who were not ready to say goodbye. I have seen the relief that comes with a gentle death and the horror and disbelief of accidents and untimely departures.
A parish minister does not enjoy the luxury of ignoring the reality of death. Like my parishioners, I have filled out the funeral planning worksheet, and several clergy friends have a copy. This is the part of death I thought I could control—loved ones gathered; a friend who can tell a few good stories as my preacher; trumpet and organ accenting the beauty of Anglican hymnody. A mandolin and “Angel Band” as the postlude. Burial in the memorial garden of the Virginia Seminary Chapel where I learned and taught and lived out my vocation as pastor, professor, and priest. Then Virginia ham biscuits, and Chesapeake crab cakes, and strawberry shortcakes at the reception. I don’t know how or when death will come to claim me, but having a funeral plan offered the illusion of having the last word.
No more. Since the explosion of the often deadly COVID-19 virus around the world, all of our illusions of control have been destroyed by an invisible and unusually capricious microbe that is cavorting with death in a macabre game of Duck, Duck, Goose.
At first, a virus that mutated in a Chinese market square seemed like a blip on the daily newsreel. In this information age, it is necessary to be selective about which global catastrophes we pay attention to. If five jet airliners filled with children crashed, we would be horrified. If the same number of children die every day from dirty drinking water, or if ten times that number of people die from starvation, the reality is too much to bear. Death makes the news when we are within its reach.
When a friend who lives on the border of China and Siberia reported that the army was delivering food to their apartment complex, that stores and restaurants were closed and any travel in and out of town was prohibited, I began to pay closer attention. I started controlling what I could control. I made lists of non-perishables that would last in the pantry. Once upon a time, my son-in-law had gone into my pantry for a soda and emerged sometime later saying, “If the Zombie Apocalypse ever comes, we are staying with Nana.” But I realized that an impressive assortment of decorative sprinkles or a gourmet condiment collection would only be marginally useful during a quarantine, and I got organized. I knew that the smaller freezer drawer under my refrigerator could only hold the icemaker, a few bags of frozen veg, and (only if you shoved) a container of ice cream—so we bought a chest freezer for our garage. I made sure that we had sufficient dog food, cleaning supplies, and personal products to allow us to stay home for a few weeks. By coincidence, I had purchased two jumbo containers of hand sanitizer—not for the flu season but to clean the autumnal tree sap that had disfigured the finish of my car. The hand sanitizer worked so well in polishing the car that I only used about a quarter cup out of a quart-sized container. When hand sanitizer became a coveted commodity, we were set.
As the virus began to appear in the United States, the news of the Italian medical system becoming overwhelmed was enough to make most people take notice. People dying in hospital hallways. Family members trapped at home with the corpse of a loved one. Medical workers, morticians, and emergency services completely overwhelmed. This was happening in the developed world. The same chaos was soon scoffing at the heroic efforts of medical workers and fist responders in New York. The virus defied detection and could not be cured. Our illusions of control evaporated into invisible clouds of contamination.
As a long-time volunteer hospice chaplain, I was aware of a national initiative called No One Dies Alone. Amongst those who practice pastoral care to the dying and their loved ones, it is standard practice to offer as much bedside presence as feasible, or as wanted by the patient and the family. “Being there” often appears to comfort the dying and is great consolation to the family after death. Now, due to the risk of contagion, nurses in Hazmat suits are holding iPads and cell phones for the dying to hear the voices and loving assurances of family who cannot be by their side. Chaplains stand outside of closed doors and recite prayers or sing. Parish clergy organize conference calls so that families and a bedside nurse can participate virtually in the familiar rituals for the dying. In my denomination, retired clergy have been called back into service to serve in a national database, Dial-A-Priest, to offer the last rites or generic prayers to those who may be dying without the presence of any loved ones or their own clergy to pray with them. Collectively, from government officials, to medical workers swathed in trash bags, to clergy in their pajamas offering comfort to strangers over the phone, we are attempting to hang on in the midst of chaos.
The ever-present threat of illness and death has altered the way I think and behave in my secluded home on the side of a mountain in the Blue Ridge. We have our groceries delivered, tip our shopper extravagantly and use a strict disinfection protocol for handling the groceries or anything else that might come in from a miasmic environment. I sewed protective face masks for donation to medical workers and their families. I bought three pairs of pajama bottoms that look like summery yoga pants. I intend to live in those until I am required to dress for civilization once again. But when an advertisement popped up on my computer for a comfy-looking pair of slip-on sneakers, perfect for summer, my first acquisitive impulse was overridden by the morbid thought, “I don’t need another pair of shoes. I could be dead in a few weeks.” I have reiterated my medical wishes to my husband, both of my children, and my primary care doctor. Sedate me heavily and let God decide the rest. I am not afraid of death, but I’ve seen the pitiless consequences of “keep Mama alive” too often to want to suffer the indignities and pain of extreme measures. I told my family that, if my time comes, I do not want them to agonize or regret the circumstances. In life and love I have been luckier than most. I have stood beside death’s door often enough to know that nobody dies alone.
But, having always loved a party, I am channeling my distress into my imaginings of the Funeral That Might Not Be. Instead of a carefully planned liturgy, with flowers and glorious music, friends, family, clergy colleagues, and students enjoying a fine Southern buffet in my memory, it is possible that I will end up naked in a refrigerated truck with a toe tag, dumped into a ditch with others beloved of God by some dude with a backhoe and a John Deere cap. On Holy Saturday, as Christians around the world waited in the liminal space between despair and hope, between death and resurrection, I prayed the Last Rites of the Christian Faith, the Jewish prayers for the dead, Muslim prayers for the dead, Buddhist prayers for the dead, and those prayers that Scripture calls “sighs too deep for words” for all who were being buried, unclaimed in mass graves in New York. I was praying for strangers, but also for loved ones, friends of friends, and even for myself. In my own prayer life, I have discovered that praying is, at its essence, the relinquishment of control. When I have lost control, it is the best that I can do.