I preached my first funeral last Saturday. It was a rather unusual service.
Well... let's just say I am now part of a rather small club: the association of clergywomen who have stood in the pulpit of a large Catholic Church and led a Celtic New Year-themed service on Halloween.
It was Bruce's idea--Bruce, dear grace-filled trickster, who knew he was dying and was determined to go out in style. You see, Bruce was the kind of guy who loved to move behind the scenes. By profession, he was a facilities manager, the man with all the keys who understood all the mystical mechanics and secret spaces. As his wife wrote about the church, "He always referred to it as "the big house", but with affection, like a nickname for a cherished friend." Indeed, Bruce poured himself into the meticulous care of the schools and churches he tended, taking pride in details nobody else might ever notice. Yet he also had a theatrical streak, and he loved to be the center of attention. The best times for Bruce usually involved the chance to feast, the chance to tell stories in diverse company, and the chance to play with fire. (The picture give you a hint of his sense of humour. It comes from a charity fundraising calendar called "Under the Kilt.")
When Bruce received his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, he understood that it was serious. He understood that such a diagnosis came with a lifespan of mere months, sometimes mere weeks. He spoke of "beginning to live in two worlds"--one in which he maintained a powerfully positive outlook with a fierce focus on future living, and one in which he pragmatically began to put his affairs in order to prepare for a fast-approaching end. Soon after his diagnosis, he approached one of the priests of the large Catholic church where he worked. He knew full well the merit of his work, knew how to play his hand as their only non-Catholic employee...and really, when a man says he's dying and wants to have his service in your church because the place means a lot to him, how could anyone say no?
The venue secured, he proceeded on to the next step of his subversive plan. At a Scottish Heritage society meeting, he pulled me aside. Would I, as chaplain to the society, officiate at his service and see to it that his heritage would be honoured? Again, how could anyone say no? In my mind, I pictured a quiet, intimate gathering in a rustic chapel somewhere...peaceful shadows and flickering candlelight...a simple, unadorned place without too much fuss where a youngish clergywoman could manage, decently, her first attempt at a funeral. Silly me. I don't know what I was thinking.
As the weeks and months unfolded around us, Bruce battled his cancer with all the courage and dedication you'd expect of a serious caber-tossing athlete. He stormed through chemotherapy and other treatment protocols in a blaze of glory, gritting his teeth and grinning at the slightest hint that he might be winning. He sought out an energy healer and seized the opportunity to improve the well-being of his spirit as well as his body. Yes, there were days when the strain showed, waves of nausea and sudden urgent trips to the doctor...but those of us at the sidelines found ourselves frequently bewildered by Bruce's newfound vigor. He was so determined to embrace life, to live fully in every moment, that some days he actually seemed MORE healthy, not less.
Bruce flexed his growing spiritual muscles and exercised them frequently. For years he had been mentoring others, but now every meeting was another chance to impart wisdom, and he tried not to waste a single chance. When we complained of our frustration with The Disappearing Plumber, he told us to "stop being angry and let it go." When we got wound up about things, he would say things like, "you may think it matters, but it doesn't. It really doesn't matter as much as you think it matters." Then he would counsel us to turn our attention elsewhere--to love, to shared comfort and laughter--and get on with the business of real living.
Over shared meals, Bruce gradually ate less and less, but we feasted together on laughter. He could build up a story, then suddenly flip it around, leaving its legs treading the air and leaving us nearly helpless with laughter. He had known plenty of rage and anger in his own life--he often reminded us that we would not have liked him when he was younger--but he clearly was intent on a different path now. Bruce, mighty-muscled and built like a tank, entertained himself now by mentoring amateur athletes for the Maine Highland Games, building runs and feeders for the wee wild beasties in his back yard, crafting traditional Scottish knives and elegant walking sticks as gifts for his friends, and weaving his own words and music together with the help of a good guitar. He counted his riches in the affection of his beloved wife, his two rescued "special needs" dogs, and the diverse range of folks he counted among his true friends.
Diversity-- that was another thing that mattered to Bruce. He welcomed both myself and my partner into his circle of friends and lauded the way we cared for each other. And when his ecclesiastical employer chose to vocally advocate the overturn of Maine's recently-passed same-sex marriage law, I suspect Bruce decided to have a little good-natured fun at their expense. So it was that he secured a huge, ornate Catholic church for his funeral venue, then asked me to lead the service and asked my partner to play the pipes.
And so we did-- three days before election day. His wife and I planned the service together and settled on the Celtic New Year as a day with particular meaning for Bruce, who deeply loved his Celtic heritage. We used the funeral service in the UCC hymnal as a guide, but included a prayer from this book along with a poem that echoed Bruce's earthy, earthly spirituality. So: Catholic church, check. Woman in pulpit, check. Pagan Celtic readings, check. Prayer for lightning not to strike me down in the middle of the homily: check.
Now, I've officiated at weddings, at christenings, at house-blessings and tree-blessings and other rituals, but I'd never done a funeral. When the full impact of the situation hit me, I confess that I got a little, well, freaked out. I don't put much stock in conspiracy theories, but after stepping into that sanctuary and seeing all the contribution envelopes for the "Stand for Marriage" campaign at all the entryways, I did feel a bit like I'd been sent into hostile territory and would soon be found out and "removed." I had to remind myself that we were there to celebrate Bruce, and that hate and petty sectarian bickering had no place in his celebration. We called the administrative head of the parish and asked him to start the service with some words of welcome. We called another priest and asked him to say the prayer of invocation. They both agreed. Now it was up to me to walk the line, to call up every ounce of worship-planning skill and diplomacy in the service of honouring my friend.
Perhaps Bruce's spirit was still "facilities manager" that day. Somehow it all came together. Somehow, it all worked, and it was beautiful. Somehow, I sat between two priests in the front of that opulent sanctuary, in front of hundreds of people, and I never triggered their "heretic and abomination" alarms. There was a massed bagpipe band in full regalia in front of the church. There was a Celtic harper inside, weaving a gentle, comforting web. There was the most heartbreakingly beautiful a capella rendition of Danny Boy--a song I usually deride--I'd ever heard. Bruce's niece played a Bach sarabande on cello. All of the readers offered scripture and poetry and prayers in clear, strong voices. Hundreds of voices joined together in "Be Thou My Vision" and "Amazing Grace." Amazing it was--and, yes, full of grace. At the end, the sound of the bagpipes swirled up and echoed from the high stone arches. Together we wept, and together we smiled, bound together in grief and love for a truly remarkable--and gleefully subversive--man.