The Experience of a Lifetime

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Some of the most special and unique moments I have been privileged to participate in my now seven-year-long altar serving career are funerals. Put most simply, funerals are a celebration of a life. Not only is the funeral a big moment in the journey for the person who has passed away, it is also a big moment for the community of which the deceased is a part. I have attended many funerals, and each one has taught me something (even if it was the name of the deceased which I soon forgot).

The funeral ceremonies where I have served mainly fall into two categories: connected and disengaged (There are no exact criteria for what constitutes each of the two categories—it is partially intuitive—but I will do my best to describe). An example of a disengaged funeral is one of those where very few seem to care about the deceased through their moods and actions. Adults seem bored, with their minds escaping from the present. Praise through song is almost nonexistent. Only a few people approach Holy Communion. The not-so-massive masses that show up at disengaged funerals are less perturbed at the unchangeable than the fact that they are there in the first place, it seems.  

Connected funerals, however, are some of those where you can tell the community is connected to the person, and the person is connected to the community. Whether tears are shed or not, everyone gives honor to the deceased through song, vibrancy, personal touches, and an overall sense of unity. I can tell at these funerals that the deceased is truly appreciated.
Some of the funerals that I have enjoyed the most and have given me models of a full, well-lived life are funerals of founding members of the parish. These funerals have taught me the values of persistence, originality, vision, and community. To stay in a community upwards of 65 years? That’s four times my age! Thousands of Sundays, throughout all adult phases of life, with a celebration of that life in a chapel 50 years in their making. Some of those members built and formed ministries—or people that give back in many ways—that still exist today!

Two of the most connected funerals that I have served at were the funerals of a religious sister and a funeral of a grandfather whose granddaughter was preparing for a wedding that took place a short three days after the funeral. The sister had passed in her 50s, and her whole community was there to support her. She emigrated from Nigeria, and she did good work for humanity on both continents. Many laypeople of the parish and others that knew her also attended. There was a certain atmosphere that the deceased projected onto the people, a certain way she had impacted each and every one of their lives for the better. For the family that endured both a funeral and wedding in very close proximity, I cannot imagine the roller coaster of emotions everyone faced; though I do think Fr. James did a pretty good job of keeping the tears at bay during the ceremony.

The whole perspective and feel of a funeral change drastically when you are related to the deceased. Close to two years ago, I attended my grandfather’s funeral. This funeral marked the first death of someone close to me, and through that death, brought our whole family together. Personally, this death made me a more mature person and helped me understand others in the front rows at funerals going forward. I learned how to grieve, and in the end, my faith deepened.

The most impactful, profound funeral that I have ever served at was the funeral of the father of a member of my class at St. Louis Catholic School. It was on a Friday in March 2016, during my seventh-grade year. The week leading up to the funeral cast a somber mood over my class. The ceremony was emotionally difficult for many, especially those who knew the father and witnessed his bout—Fr. James says that we should never call it “losing the battle”—with cancer. However, we still sang and prayed through it in a style only donned by an extremely connected funeral. The eulogies were some of the best I have heard; you could tell that this man had meant something to this class and to all of his friends and family.

We learned the lesson of solidarity—we came together in unity through our tears and suffering. After the ceremony, one of our teachers brought some of us crying children (at this point teenagers) to her room. The people who were not crying as much were caring for and reassuring the tearful. We spent the rest of the day in grief; even during PE five hours later, most of us still sat on the benches, still processing the events that had just unfolded. For this day, we felt as if this was a personal death, that we were losing a part of ourselves, an influence, a great man. This day brought us so much closer together for the final year and two months of our time at St. Louis. At the end of our seventh-grade year, the rest of the Student Council and I decided to donate our school’s Weekly Collection Basket money to Camp Kesem, the camp that brought solace to that member of my class every summer. The check totaled $4,000 and was one of the biggest achievements of my time in Student Council.

Fr. James always says in his funeral homilies that the one way we should honor the deceased that day is to simply say “thank you.” We should thank them for the good work that they have done during this life, as family, teachers, friends, and role models. We should thank them for the changes in their death that brought out hidden beauty, and the changes they had to endure in their life that produced much fruit. We should thank them for the things they achieved which we currently take for granted.

So, to every soul where I have served at your funeral: thank you. Thank you for giving me new experiences. Thank you for allowing me to honor your life. Thank you for increasing my maturity with each toll of the bell. Thank you for connecting me with you and the congregation. Thank you for letting me feel many emotions, from happiness, at a funeral with no mistakes, to tears of grief, defenseless to the future. Thank you for being a voice in this great community. Thank you for your gifts, which are still continuing to make the world a better place. And finally, thank you for your love, which God instilled in you to transform many hearts, including my own.