The Burial Liturgy for my brother
Jeffrey “J.D.” Gould
(June 13, 1956-July 29, 2013)
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church Fargo, ND
Saturday Aug. 10, 2013
+In the last almost two weeks since Jeff died I have had several fellow clergy—as well as a good share of friends and family—who told me I should probably not being officiating—and certainly not preaching— at this service today. It’s in a moment like this, right about now, when I realize: they may have been right. Let me tell you, it is a hard thing to lead the funeral service for one’s brother. They do not teach you how to do things like this in seminary.
But, I have to admit, I am happy I am doing it. I need to do this. Yes, it has been more difficult than you can even imagine. But it’s also been good. It’s been good because it has given me time to say a nice, long goodbye to Jeff.
But, even then, it has taken me a while for all of this to sink in. I think many of us feel that way. How is that Jeff—J.D.—is no longer around, somewhere? How many of us have checked his Facebook page, expecting a grumpy cat update, or a Minnesota Vikings posting, or just some quirky thing he found that reposted or shared on Facebook? How many of us have checked that page, just hoping maybe—maybe!—he wasn’t really gone? And checking that page, it was all confirmed—there, with all those condolences, all those memories people are sharing of him.
For those of us who are family, for those of us who are close friends, this has even been harder. We’ll never again get a card or letter written in that very distinctive handwriting of his. We’ll never have another call from him with that very distinctive voice of his. He’ll never come back to Fargo in that huge camper of his.
For me, the first several days after his death were days of shock. It didn’t make sense. The day after he died I talked to my sister-in-law Judy and she told me how sick Jeff really had been following his stroke in 2007. And she told me, at that time, how trapped he felt in his body, how he truly felt as though his body had turned against him.
At one point, he said, “I am tired of this. I am stuck in this body!”
Those years since the stroke were particularly difficult for him. I think the more limited he became physically, the more frustrated he became. For many of us who have suffered from debilitating illnesses, we know what that frustration is like.
As many of you know, I myself suffered with cancer about thirteen years ago. Those physical limitations, let me tell you, are hard. And we now how, as much as we depend upon these mortal bodies, they can also become kind of prisons for us as times. For those of us who have felt that our bodies have turned against us, we feel a certain sense of betrayal. I think Jeff would’ve understood that sense of betrayal. He would’ve understood that that body of his betrayed him.
But today, for Jeff, that is all behind him. That betrayal of his body. The frustration. That limiting of his life.
I was thinking about all of these things in those days after Jeff died. And, as I did, I was mourning him and thinking about how he must’ve suffered in that body of his. It was hard to think about the pain and the frustration he must’ve felt. It certainly didn’t come through in those Facebook posts. It didn’t come through in the phone calls on birthdays, or Christmas or Mother’s Day or Easter. As I thought about it, I really felt horrible.
Then, last Sunday something happened. I was celebrated the Eucharist here at St. Stephen’s on Sunday morning, as I always do, here at this altar. Now, when my father died three years ago, as many of you know, I had a very, very difficult time. I really felt like he was gone. I didn’t sense him anywhere. I didn’t feel his presence. He just seemed gone. And I really kind of despaired over that. But there was one moment when I could always feel his presence. And it was during the Eucharist, during Holy Communion. .
There is a belief in the Church that when we celebrate Holy Communion, the “veil” between this world—this world in which we live and breathe—and the next world—the world where those we loved who have died have gone—that veil becomes a very thin one at Holy Communion. And, for me, it was true. It was often at Communion, when that “veil” seemed thinnest, that I would sense my father. I knew he was there. Just on the other side of that veil. And he was happy there.
Well, on Sunday, I felt it again, but this time with Jeff. At Communion, as I looked down at the broken bread and looked into the Cup, I felt Jeff. And I realized that he was there too in that glorious place. And he was freed of that body that caused him such pain in the end. There, in that other place, he was young again. He was beautiful. And, most importantly, he was alive. And I was happy for that.
We should all be happy in that. We rejoice today in the fact that Jeff is there, on the other side of that veil. We rejoice today in the fact that that mortal body of his is no longer an issue for him. He has been freed from it. There are no physical limits for him in this moment. It is always important to be reminded sometimes that we are more than these physical bodies.
One of my favorite quotes (I even quoted it yesterday at the funeral I did for the husband of a very dear parishioner) is from the great French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard one famously made the statement that we are not physical beings have spiritual experiences.
We are in fact spiritual beings have a physical experience. We are spirits, here and now, having this physical experience.
I love that. I like that because it shows us that we are, in very our essence, spirit. And that, yes, these physical experiences can great and wonderful sometimes, but sometimes, they can be hard and painful. And that just because these mortal bodies fail us and eventually lie in dust, we—in our essence, in our very truest selves—live on. These physical experiences are only temporary. But our spirit goes on. I’ve thought a lot about that in these days since Jeff left us.
In our scripture reading from the book of Revelation today, we get a glimpse of what awaits us on the other side of that veil, when we are freed from these bodies. We hear the Apostle John saying,
“God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more...”
I love that image! I love to take consolation in the fact that there will be a day, for all of us, when death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more. In these last few days—in these last few years—our family has had more than enough of death and mourning and crying and pain. I look forward to that time when those things will pass away and we will not have to deal with them anymore.
Today, this afternoon, Jeff is in that place—in that place where death no longer exists. He is in that place where he is fully and completely alive—where is himself. Now, for us, who are left behind, for us who loved Jeff and who will so greatly miss him, this all can be so incredibly painful. But, our consolation is that the place in which Jeff now dwells—that place of light and joy and unending life—that place awaits us as well.
Yes, now we have tears in our eyes. Yes, now feel real sadness. Yes, now, in our lives, we know true pain. But our consolation today is in the fact that in that other place, that place of light, that place in which our spirits will dwell, there will never again be pain. There will never again be tears. There will never again be sadness. That is our consolation today. That is how we move from here into the rest of our lives. That is how we go forward. We go forward knowing full well that we are truly spirits having a physical experience. This is what gets us through this awful time in which Jeff is not with us anymore. This is where we find our strength—in our faith that promises us an end to our sorrows, to our loss.
It is a faith that can tell us with a startling reality that every tear we shed—and we all shed our share of tears in this life, Jeff knew that very well in his life—every tear will one day be dried and every heartache will disappear. It will. And on that great and glorious day, we will awake into that place of joy and gladness and light and life. And none of that will ever be taken from us again.
So this morning and in the days to come, let us all take consolation in that faith that Jeff is complete and whole in this moment.
I will miss Jeff. I will mourn Jeff. I am not ashamed to admit that. Our family will now seems strangely incomplete. At least, for now. But, even in the midst of this mourning, even in the midst of these tears, I know. I know that where he is, we too will be. And what is incomplete now, will be complete once again.
So, even with these tears, even with this pain, let us be glad. Let us be glad that one day we too will be sharing with Jeff in that joy, that light, in that place where all pain and sadness and death will never again exist.