Almost 13 years ago my family said our final goodbye to my mother. Grace Magdalene Bender Schwartzentruber lived a full life on two continents, always actively participating in her extended family, church and larger community. I once observed that she and my dad “collected” friends everywhere they went. Our family’s dining room table always had room for guests, planned for or unexpected. That also meant that my parents, siblings and I could travel to many locations and enjoy meals with friends and hospitality for the night.
One of the last acts of saying goodbye to Mother were the funeral visitation times, held in the small town where she and Daddy retired. Exhausted from travel and grief, and being an introvert at heart, I dreaded those many hours of standing, shaking countless hands and making small talk. But life—and death—had a surprise for me.
Those long visitation times, and the funeral itself, brought a special kind of joy amidst the pain. As I stood in the greeting line at the funeral home, I looked into the eyes of people who had interacted with Mother in ways unknown to me. There were cousins, neighbours and bowling partners. People who served on church committees with her and who sang in ensembles with her. There were people who had appreciated her pastoral visits and had read the church newsletter she edited. Some of them wept; many of them told stories both poignant and trivial. Some even told jokes—that my mother would have laughed at!
A reporter for our local paper writes a regular column called “Lifetimes,” each entry about a recently deceased person in our area. Expanding from the simple obituary, she teases out interesting facts and threads in each person’s life. She tells of their talents, passions and contributions to family and community. Photos, both old and recent, help tell the story.
Canadian Mennonite’s Milestones pages include short death notices of people from communities across the country. These local heroes are gone, and we acknowledge their lives and their passing. We also publish obituaries of people known for their contributions to the larger church. Neither the short notices nor the longer obituaries begin to tell the richness of each life. But these recognitions help us express gratitude for the people who have made a difference in our lives.
Today’s issue includes obituaries for Ralph Lebold and Dick Benner, both of whom played a part in my younger years and more recent years. (Yes, my parents knew them both!) These men lived out their faith with passion and dedication to Christ’s people and the world.
Each November the Christian church celebrates All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and Eternity Sunday (the last Sunday before Advent). Both of these invite us to remember and celebrate the faithful “saints” who have gone before us. Their examples teach us and encourage us in our own faith journeys.
At my mother’s passing, I learned that customs at the time of death can bring special treasures to our lives. When grief is raw, tributes and rituals remind us to be grateful for the part our loved ones played in the world. In recounting their lives, we celebrate that each of them was God’s gift to us, even in their imperfections. Their lives mattered. Their lives still matter. Their legacy lives on.
So we read the obituaries and profiles in the local paper and we stand in the visitation lines. When we show up at the funeral home, when we weep with the grieving ones, when we take part in the storytelling, we are joining in the legacy of the departed one. We acknowledge the life of someone who was a beloved child of God.
Our presence at a time of grief sends a powerful message: In God’s eyes, in the larger scheme of things, your loved one mattered to the world. That life was precious. Your love for that person matters to me. You matter.
The Bible calls Christ’s followers—both the living and those who have gone before us—“saints.” “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine,” says the hymn. “Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
Holiday publishing schedule
Just a reminder that our next two issues will be published three weeks apart. Our Christmas issue will be dated Dec. 11 and our first issue of 2018 will be dated Jan. 1. After that, we will return to our regular two-week publishing schedule.