Thank God for funerals, the one place left where non-churchgoing America comes touching close to truth. I've been to two this month. You hear the best and the worst of theology at funerals. The best cuts right to the chase, boring down to bedrock theology like a 17th-century Scottish preacher: "The Lord's Supper is coming over the Cairngorms to your town next week; you're either in with Christ or out; make up your mind, laddie," cries the circuit rider. None of this waiting till salvation is on the liturgical calendar before bringing up the subject.
I am today a black speck in a black sea of well-wishers; Cheryl was a much-loved lady, I surmise, though a mere acquaintance to myself, the mother of my son's friend. I did not weep at my husband's funeral but I am weeping here as I peer through heads at two stoic teenage boys I never knew owned suit and tie, boys who think they are grieving but who are not yet grieving as they will. I weep because I know what is ahead for them.
What these around me know I cannot tell. Some, as we wait for the interminable greeter's queue to end, have lapsed into talking about business, vacation plans, and the best manicures in town. This is not offensive to me, as I prefer it to officious sullenness, yet I cannot help drifting to the scene in Live and Let Die where a feckless bystander cranes his neck over crowds at a New Orleans-style funeral down Bourbon Street and asks who the corpse is, only to be unceremoniously stashed into the casket himself. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
A collective spiritual insight almost breaks through, then is submerged again-as if some invisible, malevolent incense inhabiting the belfry would keep us all sleepy and OK with death. I struggle to stay awake, for I am as susceptible as any. "Leave the dead to bury their own dead," says Jesus, and I understand now, since the preacher tells us, "Death is not life cut short; it is one of life's phases." (I jot this down on my program because I cannot make up such pap even if I try.) He proceeds to inform us, with breathtaking confidence, that Cheryl is at this very moment "looking down at us with a tear and a smile" and mouthing sweet words (that he has made up for the occasion).
But I am not here to deconstruct funerals. I start praying for truth, and things start looking up. "Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life," the priest says. And, "Do not fear; only believe," he implores. I want to believe, but I have seen his kind before, and I want dearly to ask him, "Would you be willing to say these same things half an hour from now at the back door? Or at my kitchen table? Or will I find myself betrayed again by your own embarrassment?"
I follow through the rest with the sure-footedness of someone inbred from childhood with its smells and ritual, producing a "sign of the cross" on cue from some ancient place within, and forming all the right responses. I make a split-second decision about the doctrine of Transubstantiation, ex opere operato, and the appropriateness of partaking of the elements.
As we file out through the vestibule I'm thinking that there is a fine line between celebrating someone's life and a hagiography, a fine and treacherous line between celebrating Cheryl and eclipsing the Lord of the manor. The overall impression must be the thing, I decide: In the afterglow of the funeral, who is glowing most-Christ or the dearly departed? It's all so subtle: Who can pin it down, or call it right or wrong, when many of the words are right but the music is just slightly off?
Still, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting" (Ecclesiastes 7:2). A day is coming when it will not be so, when "Thank God for funerals" will be an appalling thing to say. For like the ark of old, these things "shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed" (Jeremiah 3:16). But for now I see this as a strange amalgam of special and general revelation-at its best, when the gospel is sharp and clear, the former; at its worst, still the former. And may the small seed sown in the last two hours not be snatched from the rocky path as soon as the church doors shut.