I came across a funeral procession on my way to work today. One of the things I love about the South is the tradition, very much alive in small towns, of pulling off to the side of the road to let a funeral procession go by, no matter how long it is and which direction you are going (same direction, opposite direction, or perpendicular direction). I think there is something deeply human(e), genuine, and important about taking a few minutes to acknowledge that one of us (yes, ONE OF US) has passed on and is no more.
After all, the Bible itself reminds us that “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps 116:15). I know that brings up the thorny issue of theodicy… exactly how does a loving and just God stand by and watch so many innocent people die in wars, disasters and famines. That’s something to be discussed some other time. But I guess I believe you have to either take it on faith (with sensible reasons to do so) that despite some evidence to the contrary, God does feel something about the death of his children, or you reject the notion of a concerned heavenly father. Jesus said as much, explaining that God is aware of every sparrow that falls to the ground and reassuring, “don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Still, in a fast paced life where we’re always in a hurry to make it to our next appointment, this tradition of stopping can feel annoying and pointless. I was once on the TGV (“train grande vitesse” or high speed train) in France, traveling from Paris to Lille to see my childhood friends. I was eager to get there and make the most of my time, though I was on no tight time schedule. Suddenly, the train came to a stop and sat on the track for about 15 minutes. Passengers (myself included) became restless and aggravated. Then, a voice came over the intercom explaining that someone had tragically thrown themselves into the path of the oncoming train, in a final suicidal act. That seemed to do little to calm the travelers down, as we sat for another 20 minutes or so. We were all thinking of the inconvenience of altered plans.
At that moment, I had a profound change of mind. I thought to myself, someone–that is, a fellow human being–despaired so much of life that he ended it all. He believed his life to be of so little use or value that committing suicide was the best option for himself and everyone he knew. And what were we, the passengers of the train, now saying by our reactions? “Whoever you were, you were right; even your death is an inconvenience to us! We want to get on with our own meaningful lives without being delayed by your meaningless death (and by implication meaningless life).” I then became very sad, very calm and very patient. It no longer mattered how long the delay would take. I did not know this person, but I decided I would feel more than OK–indeed, I would feel content–about being bothered by his last act, his final cry for recognition (after all you don’t kill yourself in such a public way if you want to go unnoticed). No, that person merited my full attention, whatever time it took, he deserved my concern. Anything less would be profoundly unchristian.
Since that incident, I’ve never minded stopping for funerals. I can’t single-handedly stop wars, genocides, famines, and similar tragedies where countless humans die. But I can refuse to depersonalize the dead, to treat them as mere annoyances or as meaningless distractions from my daily routine. Instead, I can take the time to take stock that each and every one of the dead lived a life that mattered. It should matter to me, because it matters to God. I can take the time to honor each death, as one who has passed on to another sphere. I can even pray to God, “receive this, my unknown brother, who may have been good and kind, or may have been evil and selfish; yet, receive him with the same grace that I long and hope for”.
I think it’s in little acts like stopping for funeral processions that we proclaim the kingdom of God. When we could either depersonalize and dehumanize the dead by going on about our busy schedules without a second thought, and thus treat them as impersonal events or inconveniences… or we can stop and acknowledge that a person, an individual who was unique in every way, who was loved at sometime by someone is now no longer among us, and that, consequently, the world will never be quite the same. I choose the latter.