"It's too bad we can't attend our own funerals." I hear this wish voiced from time to time, usually when a particularly well-attended and well-organized memorial service has taken place. I think what they mean is that they wish the living could hear the affirmation of their lives that a memorial service often devises. They wish all the loved ones from near and far could gather while the person is still living and well enough to appreciate the love that is witnessed there.
Of course, people who make these wishes are often not the people who, like pastors, see the underside of end-of-life planning. They haven't witnessed the ways that long-buried family dynamics can suddenly rear their heads when people are grieving and have no energy for best behavior. They may have forgotten about the relative who must be in control of matters at all times, and who was only held in check by -- guess who -- the one who is now deceased.
And, I suspect, what they might really want is all the "celebration of life" that can happen as a life ends, without the reality that death ends that life. Better observers than I -- Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long in particular -- have voiced the concern that we seem too eager to have funerals without death, without bodies, without sorrow.
But every year, on Ash Wednesday, an astonishing number of people -- and not only the ones I would expect -- turn up to have a cross of ashes placed on their foreheads, and to hear the words, "remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
It's a moving ritual in and of itself, this reminder of mortality, but it is especially moving to me each year, because I know a lot of stories behind every forehead. Since I am a pastor, I know who buried a sibling or a spouse this past year and who had a medical scare last week. I know who buried a parent in the columbarium behind us, and who has come to terms with an addiction this year. I know which marriages are particularly troubled, and who might actually be glad to hear that the troubles of this world won't go on forever.
It is, in an odd way, sort of like attending your own funeral, except that elevating the individual is completely antithetical to the day's message. In fact, Matthew's Gospel explicitly enjoins us to avoid visible signs of our piety, to hide the things that others might call holy in us. Instead, we all receive exactly the same visible signs-- a cross of ashes, mixed with oil, and a bit of bread and wine. Whatever our triumphs or failings in life, they are marked with the same sign of temporality, and the same signs of God's redemption.
Like a funeral, Ash Wednesday produces in us a kind of compassion for one another that we don't always muster every Sunday, without the individualistic "pressure" of the "only funeral you will ever get." We walk away reminded that this community, as it is gathered on this day, is captive to time and aging and death. No matter what our differences with one another, they stand underneath these signs of the ultimate truths: we will (all of us!) die; and Christ is risen.
I'm glad I don't have to attend my own funeral, and really grateful I get to attend this collective reminder of mortality and redemption every year.