January 15th, 2004

cat quilt painting

The power of presence

Today I performed a memorial service for the wife of a person I know only slightly. She had died unexpectedly, at a mere 50 years of age, and I was asked to do the service because her husband and I both sing in a local community choir. I've been to funerals where it was painfully clear that the officiating clergy did not know the deceased; a worse disaster can scarcely be imagined. So In the day and a half of preparation I had available, I took it upon myself to take a crash course in the details of the dear departed's life, interviewing her husband and sister and other family members, taking extensive notes, which I cleaned up and then read almost verbatim at the funeral home. Such a sketchy outline is a poor excuse for the real telling of the story of a person's life, and I said so; then spoke briefly from what I hoped was an appropriate biblical text about the values that make life, however short, worth living. In short, I stumbled through as best I could, in hopes that the fewness and inadequacy (or the abundance and pompousness) of my words would not too deeply disappoint the gathered assembly, any of whom were (as I pointed out) likely more qualified than I to do what I was there to do.

So I don't think that it was the power of my prose, nor the eloquence of my presentation, nor the depth of insight that I brought to expression, that caused people to respond with what seemed to me to be a bit more than the perfunctory required expressions of appreciation. I think those expressions were sincerely offered, rather, because I was present; to the sorrow and confusion that death often brings, I allowed myself to be there. This is in contrast, I think, to that clergyman I spoke of earlier with horror, who was just as clearly absent even as he was intoning the ceremonially appropriate words for the occasion.

Presence brings power; and I suppose that is the nature of my meal ticket.