Today I take a walk among the tombstones. After we enjoy the Memorial Day parade, I will travel uphill for a couple of blocks and take greetings to the people we have lost.
Death is the recurring companion of the pastor. After a few hundred funerals, you cease to fear it. Yet each loss remains real. Each departure diminishes us. Each stone marks a story. So I will walk among my silent congregation for a while and I will remember.
What stories! The widowed school teacher who never had children of her own, but left an impression on a thousand adopted grandchildren. The henpecked man who finally found peace when he laid down for the last time. The jovial funeral director whose cancer went undiagnosed until it was too late. The pretty wife whose husband never paid attention to her, even when she was dying. The teenager who concluded his own pain. The old Veteran who survived the war but didn't wake up one autumn morning. The ancient couple that died within days of one another. The young infant who never had a chance.
These stories are the stuff of the pastoral life. We officiate as people grieve, making their grief official, bearing it with them for a while, pointing them beyond it, suggesting the Spirit's presence in the thick of it. I would be lying if I did not confess how my work as Grief Officiant quietly affects me. John Donne said it right: Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
So I walk among the stones today. In time, each story loses its shock but not its value. Wisdom is learned from the dead. We calculate what it important by paying attention to the lives that have gone before us. We learn to love by seeing the incalculable value of each child of God. The wise ones pause to number their own days.
I stop at the stones whose stories I know. "Hello again," I say. "We miss you. We wish you peace in your silence." They smile on us, these quiet saints. Their troubles are over, their joy fulfilled.
After I say goodbye once again, I depart a different man. Love changes me.