During years as a pastor and hospice chaplain, I tended to people in their final hours. When death is imminent, we drop those pretenses that mute the colors of our lives, sharing the vulnerability of our common humanity. We joined in memories of family, travels, rites of passage. We focused on the need for reconciliation. We brought children and grandchildren to the bedside for final blessings. We prayed for the dissolution of lingering fears and regrets as the door to the unknown began swinging open.
There are good deaths and bad deaths. I don’t just mean the timing. I mean the state of the individual’s mind and spirit at the time of passing, the emotional and spiritual inheritance they leave with friends and family members. Sadly, too many people I buried left a troubled legacy. Undue forgiveness and healing remained in the wake of their passing. At their memorial services, we celebrated the incomprehensible love of God, but we were painfully aware that this grace did not transform the person during his/her brief life.
Why? Because they stubbornly clung to their character defects. They fueled them with rationalizations, grudges, resentments. They adopted the lie that “this is just the way I roll,” or “I’m never going to change.” The devils they knew seemed safer than those beyond the edge of change. They feared true freedom, so they exchanged that birthright for a life in chains.
I remember a sunny afternoon at a cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas. I had just presided at the graveside service of a man who died a bad death. He was chronically angry. His controlling expectations of his family were smothering. He never gave unconditional love to others because he never experienced it in his own soul
The gathering around the casket was small. Strains of Eleanor Rigby haunted me. I shared some words of comfort and hope, trying not to sound obligatory. After the final prayer, people dispersed before the lowering of the casket. I remained, standing in the shade of a nearby tree.
As the box descended into the ground, one worker brought a tractor for the back fill. Two others with shovels smoothed the space and replaced the strip of sod. They bantered as if they were working on a stretch of country road. Can’t blame them. But after all the vagaries, passions, hopes and dreams of a human life, the moment seemed ignominious. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The men dispersed, leaving the gleaming headstone behind. I lingered. It was one of those exquisite spring days that stir deep awareness: light breeze whispering in trees, birds singing with ecstatic abandon, shadows rippling across the manicured lawn.
I took a deep breath and said a quiet prayer. God, you know my worries and fears better than I do. Please help me be free. Please help me live each day in the center of your love for me and my love for others.
Just at that moment a magnificent monarch butterfly fluttered down and settled on the headstone, unfurling its fragile wings in the sunlight. Time stood still. I took a deep breath. Then the beautiful creature took wing to other adventures.
I smiled and walked slowly back to my car.