Incalcuable lossWritten by Eric McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I do funerals and memorial services. It comes with the job I have. People often think this is the downside of my work. I always disagree. Sure there is the sadness and emptiness that surrounds this kind of work. But there is also memory. At most funerals people remember. Most remembering is told through story. And since most of the world’s religions involve story and myth, most of us clergy are right at home in this pastoral activity.
Today, many funerals employ what acerbic essayist Joe Queenan calls the “tag team eulogy.” He cynically describes this as one person after another getting up at the service to out do each other by telling funny and outrageous tales about the dearly departed. I am not so cynical about this. I find the blending of laughter and tears that often comes from is helpful to the grieving. It allows me to do my job, applying the story of the faith tradition out of which my faith community lives to the story of the dearly departed’s life.
I know this is helpful because in the quiet moments of my day, I often find my imagination being crowded by thoughts of my father’s memorial service three years ago. The words, the friends, the liturgy, the hymns, the stories of that day comfort me. In an odd sort of way, they remind me that, though I have suffered a loss through my father’s death, maybe I haven’t lost as much of my father as I thought. For those who believe, the stories and myths and the symbols and liturgies of a person’s faith tradition help make a connection between the human soul and the mysterious nature of the eternal. This connection makes the grieving bearable and healable.
An image on the late news a couple of weeks ago was truly gruesome and tragic: a dump truck, backing toward an open pit. It stops. It unceremoniously drops its load. What pours out of its bed are human bodies. Lots of them. No storytelling, no hymns, no prayers, no liturgy or rituals. Nothing but broken concrete and human flesh. The report was from Haiti.
How do we calculate the true loss in disasters like these? I am sure the accountants and actuaries are busy doing their work. Some day we will have all the numbers… dollars expended, lives lost, people injured. The compassionate will give and grieve while the cynical will make their judgments. Some will ask the question “why?” Some of my colleagues will stupidly attempt an answer. Thankfully, most of us will simply want to do something for these people.
Obviously, the loss of life is tragic and cannot be replaced. But for the survivors there is something else lost. It has to do with the image of the dump trucks and mass graves. It is as if the enormity of this disaster is so great that it has stolen from the surviving the simple and powerful opportunity to gather around a ritual or liturgy, sing a few songs, tell a few stories, say a few prayers, and allow the tears and the laughter to help write the next chapter in their lives. All this stuff we take for granted surrounding the death of our loved ones, has suddenly became unavailable for countless souls caught in this disaster. Many will carry with them the scars of unanswered questions.
I suppose in the massive scale of all of this, some will think this concern is small and trivial. Maybe it is. But the human soul requires its own kind of mythology. The mechanisms it employs to help us stumble into a sense of meaning and purpose, love and connectedness includes such things as memory and ritual, symbol and stories. This kind of loss can never be fully measured. I can’t help but to be haunted by the unfairness of it all.
Eric McGlade is a United Methodist Minister who lives and works in Bowling Green.