Next week, in many Christian churches around this planet, the faithful will solemnly gather on Wednesday to personally hear words of piercing inevitability. Those on the outside might cynically view it as some sort of a morbid death march, as human columns form in sanctuaries and processions commence.
Exhaustively inclusive, it won’t matter where one is positioned on the spectrum of life’s timeline. With a pointed and penetrating acknowledgment, each soul will step forward only to then pause momentarily. What then unfolds is a poignant and unusual ritual whereby each participant is indelibly yet temporarily marked. Typically, the shape of the inscription is roughly akin to that of a small cross.
While clutching an unassuming vessel, the prescribed officiant anticipates each arrival by firmly pressing a finger into its contents followed by a deliberate look into the eyes of the congregant. What follows is a pronouncement with unquestioned certainty, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” To further affirm the immutable nature of it all, the recipient responds accordingly with a frequently used transliteration of a Greek word. Most know it as “Amen,” or more properly translated, “So be it!”
Lifeless ashes are the contents of the bowl, charred remains from somewhere of something fittingly painted upon each forehead.
The most obese file folder in my office desk, on the verge of bursting at the seams, is the one dangling between those marked “Food Pantry” and “Habitat for Humanity.” Now pushing 40 years, the green folder labeled “Funerals” relentlessly demands more space.
The ever-expanding collection is likely larger than some of my colleagues but smaller than many. Included within my expanding collection of nearly four decades are voluminous obituaries, bulletins, sermon transcripts and funeral home brochures of innumerable individuals. Called upon to preside over such solemn gatherings, each serves as a piercing reminder of our collective terminal condition.
Honestly, when I first said “yes” to that discernable call in my life, I had little or no comprehension of the enormity of this particular undertaking as a member of the clergy.
Strangely enough, my inaugurating initiation to these gravesite rubrics took place while on a year-long seminary internship at a church in Arlington, Virginia. Trying desperately to disguise any noticeable fear and trepidation, I sufficiently interred the deceased while standing on the hallowed ground of none other than the Arlington National Cemetery. Awaiting my conclusion of the committal was seven armed soldiers, members of a full parade-dress color guard, poised to finish the proceedings off with a penetrating 21-gun salute.
Among those remembered and filed away were a beloved father and both my in-laws. They would stand alongside the remembrances of many cherished souls, members of congregations I was privileged to serve. Scattered throughout are those whom I never formally met but who requested someone of my profession to bring a measure of both consolation and closure.
Hardly a day goes by where I don’t scan the obituaries in the newspaper, hear of someone’s passing from a family member or friend, am informed of a neighbor being placed on hospice or read of a tragic fatality as a result of an automobile accident, shooting, suicide or, of late, a plane or helicopter crash. Inevitably, when gathered with other ministry colleagues, especially to pray, thoughts of death and the dying, funerals and memorial services, grieving and consolations enter into our conversation.
Recently, I learned last year was the 50h anniversary of the pioneering study of the late psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who first penned the well-worn and insightful volume, “On Death and Dying.” Therein she proposes the five stages of grief as a means of adjustment and a way to eventually journey forward. Her most helpful work has stood the test of time, in part because we, unfortunately, will not on this earth.
Given the uncertainty of our limited and fragile existence as humanity, we ought to continue to strive to adhere to those who advocate for a “carpe diem.” This past fourteenth of February only scratches the surface of our universal need, in the living of these days we are afforded, to love well.
Fortunately, Ash Wednesday’s aforementioned liturgy, though expressed with resonating finality, is not the inevitable last word on life, particularly for those counted among the many who might walk by faith.
One last matter exists, namely that of the “eulogy.” Taken by many as the opportunity to speak mostly of the deceased, more appropriately it serves to bring, as the etymology of the term reminds all, a “good word,” or in Greek, a “eu-logy!” For myself and many others, no improvement can be made of any last word than that of the “Good News” of what is the Christian Gospel.
The symbolic smudge upon the brow will easily wash away, but arising from the ashes is a promise-filled hope that springs eternal.
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org