By Bryan Owen
Every now and then the church gets a call for a priest to conduct a graveside service. It could be for someone who has little to no church affiliation. Or it could be for someone who was a church member many years ago before moving away. And of course, given recent restrictions with the COVID-19 pandemic, even funerals for church members have sometimes been graveside services with limited numbers of family in attendance.
I once received such a call for a lady who was a member but had moved many years before I joined the clergy staff. So I went to the cemetery vested in cassock, surplice, and stole to offer prayers and words of comfort, and to commit to the ground the body of a woman I had never met.
It can feel awkward officiating burial services while not knowing the deceased or any of the family. That’s yet another reason why I give thanks for the Book of Common Prayer. For regardless of who the deceased may have been in this life, or whether or not the officiant knew them, the prayers in the burial office always hit the mark. And that’s because (as the prayer book puts it): “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection” (507). The risen Jesus is the true focus, not death or dead bodies, and not even how wonderful (or not) the deceased may have been.
I said the prayers. I read a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, the 23rd Psalm, and a passage from the Gospel according to John. And before the committal, I offered the following brief homily (reconstructed from memory):
We are gathered here on this beautiful morning with heaviness in our hearts. The death of a loved one hurts. It’s painful to be separated from someone we love. And so we gather to grieve the loss of N.
But we also gather in thanksgiving for N.’s life. N. touched the lives of countless persons — family, friends, and strangers — with her love and kindness. Only God can fully know the many ways that her life was a blessing to others.
And we also gather in thankful expectation for the future. For the truth at the heart of our faith is that for all who die in the Lord, life is changed, not ended.
The Scripture readings we heard speak directly to that truth. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul makes the staggering claim that nothing in all of creation — not even death, which seems so final — can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. That love is eternal. And it is stronger than the grave.
We also have the reassurance and the promise from the lips of our Lord himself that he will never drive away anyone who comes to him. Anyone who believes in Jesus has eternal life. And he will raise that person from the dead on the last day.
We can trust that N. is now in the closer presence of the one who loves us more than we can possibly imagine. She has been reunited with her husband and with all those who have gone before. And we have the sure and certain hope that all of us who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus will one day be reunited with loved ones. We, too, shall be raised to new, incorruptible life in a world that knows nothing of death.
And so we give thanks to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
I hope that, by God’s grace, these words were sufficient for the family and friends who traveled from far and wide to bury a much-loved mother, grandmother, sister, and friend. And I give thanks for the privilege of being called as a priest to share the good news of God in Christ in all times and places, including at the graveside.
The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.