Lessons from a Funeral

WASHINGTON, D.C. -  The Coast Guard Honor Guard stands in formation before the beginning of the Coast Guard's Veteran's Day wreathlaying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetary.  USCG photo by PA1 Adam Eggers

(Guest post written by Chaplain Darin Dunham)

The Honor Guard transitions from port arms. A command is bellowed out thrice, three successive volleys ring out, loud, jarring. All jump in their seat, and the widow begins to cry. Taps rings out across the immaculately groomed grass and headstones. Carefully and with dignity, two Sailors slowly lift the Stars and Stripes off the casket and begin to methodically fold it. The flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation, a slow salute, a final prayer.

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This is a scene that has played out many times in my career as a Navy Chaplain and still hits me powerfully every time. It is not the most joyous duty laying to rest shipmates yet it remains one of the most meaningful aspects of this career I have chosen and that has chosen me. It is an honor. My deep fear is to fail in lending dignity to that moment.

I have buried at sea and on land and as I watch grieving loved ones bid farewell, I am always struck with the notion that in their lives at that moment, the moment of internment, time seems to stop. In sadness, pain and loss, families have expressed how surreal they feel. A moment ago they were so busy, rushing here and rushing there. Then suddenly… the dreaded phone call, the bad news, the funeral, the burial. Now they can’t remember what was so terribly important. What was it they were so busy doing? What would they give for five more minutes with their loved one? What would they say? Tick, tock, tick, tock…

We spend so much of our life waiting. We wait in lines, we wait at the store, we wait at the bank.  We wait to graduate from school, we wait to marry, we wait till we have kids, we wait to begin careers, we wait to retire. But we buy into an illusion, don’t we? We think we will always have time. Our seconds become minutes, our minutes become hours, our hours become days, our days become weeks, our weeks become months, our months become years. From seconds to years, and one day life suddenly pauses, perhaps at a funeral. And we say, “where did the years go?” Tick, tock, tick, tock…

There is a certain precious gift that is offered at burials. There is a moment, perhaps “the” moment, where those who are inclined to, can reflect on their own life. For one honest moment, sometimes a harsh moment, one can reflect on whether or not the things they are pursuing with all vigor and might are worth it. I mean really worth it in light of the brevity of life. What is really important?

For a brief moment before we are thrust back into the rat race and the chaos of life… time stops, or seems to. And in that moment is the gift; a chance for a rudder adjustment, a new course alignment, a compass calibration. It is not uncommon to see people leave with new resolve, with humility, with determination to utilize the time they do have well. To forgive, to love, to live better than before. They hear the cadence of their life beating time. Tick, tock, tick, tock…

What matters in this life? A Chaplain will always say Faith first, then the rest of life has a way of falling into its proper place. But family should be next and I want to address my Shipmates who have unresolved issues with family and friends. There are no perfect families in this world. There are no perfect relationships. We are hurt and we hurt back and divides emerge and widen over time. We are let down, we let down, we are disappointed, we disappoint. Sometimes we don’t even know how our fractured relationships got to the state they are  in.

Here is a lesson from a funeral. Don’t wait any longer, you have done enough waiting in your life. Reach out, say sorry, forgive. Do so without “mental reservation or purpose of evasion”. Life is short, live well.
Tick, tock, tick, tock…..

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