Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller
In his poem, "Calling," author and funeral director Thomas Lynch wrote about listening for the call from the voice of God, waiting as an altar boy for the thunder and enlightenment that, for him, did not come as he knelt before the Eucharist.
As he listened quietly, and as his pastor urged, his calling was not to the priesthood, but to follow his father into funeral service. That calling came for his father when he was 12 and saw "two men in shirtsleeves" lift the body of an uncle -- a young priest -- from a table and place him into a casket.
The symbolism of his father's calling stayed with Lynch.
"You have to understand, that for most Catholics, the elevation of the dead body is the central metaphor of our liturgy," he said.
"For my father, watching this dead priest being elevated into a coffin was not unlike watch_ing a priest raise the host. There is more here than you can see. Isn't that what our faith presses our noses up against -- that there is more [to death] than this corpse in front of you?"
Lynch is part of Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors, a family owned service with six locations in southeast Michigan. He also is a poet, essayist and author of several books, including the award-winning "The Undertaking," a heartfelt look at people who grieve and the profession that serves them.
Funeral directors see faith challenged on a regular basis, and that sometimes means their own. Lynch likened it to the Book of Job. "It is the ancient problem of evil, why bad things happen to good people -- the death of children, for example," he told Our Sunday Visitor. "Sometimes the things that happen around funeral homes make me wonder about God, and then I pray. I keep prayer handy because faith for me is an exercise in doubt and wonder as well."
Lynch provides a space in his funeral home where people can honestly grieve and that may include, he said, shaking their fists at God and demanding, "What did you have in mind?"
"They can say, with certainty, that God knows our hearts and will forgive our anger and hopelessness and our hurt and outrage, and he will be there in the long run to comfort us," he said.
Because of his Catholic faith, Lynch said he is outspoken about the need for the bereaved to experience grief. The generation today bringing loved ones to funeral homes is the first generation, he said, that tries to get past grieving by not having a body at a funeral. He believes this carries the risk of spiritual and emotional peril.
"They have the body disappear by immediate burial or cremation, then they have a memorial service where the finger food is good, the talk is uplifting and the dead guy is not there," he said.
"But ours is a faith based on the empty tomb. The real deal is taking the body to the tomb, or the grave or the [crematory] fire, which is a purification and a metaphor for our Catholic faith."
Bob Biggins, former president of the National Funeral Directors Association, often calls on his faith when he ministers to clients at his funeral home in Rockland, Mass.
His own convictions, he said, enable him to share with the bereaved the hope and consolation of the promised "heavenly hereafter."
On the occasions when lapsed Catholics veto a funeral Mass, Biggins explains that the ritual and ceremony of the Mass can comfort.
He also tells them that taking the deceased back to church is an appropriate way to honor their life and their death.
"Our Church is clear that baptisms take place in church and that weddings take place in church, too, because the church is the center of our faith community," he said. "Most of the time, they will agree to have a funeral Mass."
Being able to reach people in those ways is one of the most satisfying aspects of Biggins' profession. "I think it's unquestionably a vocation to walk with a family through their darkest days, through the 'valley of the shadow of death,' " Biggins told Our Sunday Visitor. "It's one of the most rewarding things that I can ever imagine doing."
J. Peter Clavin, of Brooklyn, N.Y., grew up around his family's funeral business, which was founded in 1885. Early on, he learned to have compassion for the many ways that people grieve. Each family, he said, is different, and some are bitter toward the doctor, the hospital and even God -- especially when the death is unexpected.
"A family that believes -- whether they are Catholic, Lutheran or any other faith -- will have guidance from faith," he said. "It's difficult to see a family without faith because they have no railing to hold onto. I have even been reprimanded by some families for wanting to say prayers at the funeral. They say, 'We will say some words, not prayers.' I say that it's beautiful to say some words, but there's nothing wrong with a prayer."
Whatever the bereaved's faith or lack of it, Clavin tries to help them find comfort in family and friends. Catholics can find additional strength in Church teaching.
"Some faiths don't bring you back into the churches, but our churches have always been the focal point and the mainstay in our community," he said. "It's a beautiful place to laugh and to cry. We are baptized there and we receive the sacraments there, then we are baptized back into heaven. The Catholic Church always brings its people back."
How does he deal with being around all of the grieving? "If you look at it as helping people through those days, it's hard to be negative," Clavin said. "So, we talk about celebrating life, whether it was a short one or a long one. Always something positive, something good, will come, believe it or not, and that's having faith."
Pat Lynch, brother of Thomas Lynch and operator of one of the family's funeral homes in Michigan, finds gratification in being able to meet people at one of the most difficult times of their lives.
It is a ministry, he said, to provide them with a shoulder to cry on, ears to listen and someone to care for them while they journey with their dead "to the place where they have to say goodbye, then leave and go back to the living."
"As funeral directors, we are taught to stay with people instead of running from circumstances," Pat Lynch said. "It's a gift to be invited into people's lives at those times, and it's something that funeral directors cherish. My father said he had been strengthened by witnessing the faith of others in the face of what could cause them absolute despair."
When survivors ask questions that have no earthly answers he counsels them to be gentle with themselves, express their doubt, pray for courage and keep the faith.
"In the meantime, when you're angry, God can take it," he said.
Lynch is a member of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Guild, a Catholic organization for funeral directors named after the man who took the body of Jesus to his tomb, and who is considered the patron saint of funeral directors.
"After the Blessed Mother held her son following his death on the cross, she gave him over to Joseph to take him to the tomb," Lynch said. "He was given that privilege by Mary, Jesus' mother -- and what a privilege that was, and what a privilege it is for funeral directors today who care for the dead at the request of the living. I believe that it is absolutely a sacred responsibility, and in so doing, we hope to bring an added measure of dignity to life itself."
When funeral director Edward J. Lynch Jr. died in 1992, his son, Thomas Lynch, also a funeral director, was the one who prepared his body for burial.
"People have said to me that it must have been a very difficult thing to do, but the difficult thing was that my father had died, not that I was preparing his body," Lynch said.
Tending to his father's body, he added, was "a very important place to be, the right place at the right time." He compared it to his part in the birth of his children.
"Then, I was saying useless things like 'Breathe, honey, breathe,' but it wasn't what I was doing for the birth of my children," he said. "It was the being there."
Edward Lynch, his family said, prayed all his life that he would not outlive any of his children.
"His prayers were answered," his son said. "So, to be there to prepare his body for burial seemed like a good duty. It was a difficult one, but it was honorable."
Source: Interfaith Funeral Information Committee
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.