I attended a wonderful funeral this week, wonderful in the sense the Puritans would have intended, a dramatic and frightening occurrence that connected participants to God, both his power and his grace. As my dear friends mourned the loss of their first child, dead a day before she was born less than a month before her parents expected to meet her, I discovered two things. Our community was strengthened as we wept together, sharing a rare intensity of emotion. Hugging and touching, watching each other quietly, recognizing that all of our chins were trembling and our cheeks were wet in the same place at the same time and for the same reason, we affirmed that we are all of us a family, no matter how fragile physical life can be. To borrow the phrase of Massachusetts Bay Puritan Samuel Sewall, “real friends are the principal comfort and relief against the evils of our own Life.”
Further, touching Olivia’s cool skin in an act of greeting and farewell, watching her mother and father huddle over her diminutive casket as we sang “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” I felt myself able to exorcise through the experience some of my own parental fear at how tenuous the physical lives of our children are. Being present with my loved ones allowed me to confront the potential tragedy with which parenthood is forever fraught. Her father’s noble and tender dignity in bidding farewell sanctified my own fatherhood in ways that I only partly understand. Her mother’s quiet strength allowed me to draw courage for my own possible future farewells. Thank God for such magnificent public rituals in our times of greatest need.
I was grateful that my friends elected not to participate in the normative funeral etiquette of twentieth-century Rocky Mountain Mormonism. No bishop speaking nervously about reunions and faithfulness, no relative stranger moulding bereavement to the constraints of piety, but hearts opened to other hearts as they fractured. I found myself, like the “folk” whose wisdom generally escapes me, grateful for a system to locate our ritual experience within the cosmos but uninterested in the formal intrusion of the clergy. For that hour, I needed priesthood to signify an immanent power that filled every soul present, not a hierarchy of church authorities.
This has been a mighty and terrible but strangely glorious week for our community. These events have shaped our memories and our souls.
God bless you, Olivia Tai, for what you have shared with us. And God bless your mourning parents.