Okay. So here I am, sitting in a family conference room at the George Washington Memorial Park in Plymouth Meeting, PA, waiting to officiate a funeral in the chapel. My car is in the shop, so I hitched a ride with Joe the funeral director who had to be here a couple of hours early. I’m killing time in this sales office while the viewing is being held. I guess this is as good a place as any to start thinking about the recently—and not-so-recently—deceased who will be remembered on All Saints Sunday. I look around me at the pictures of different types of burial vaults and mausoleums you can buy if you want to make George Washington Memorial your final real estate purchase. The room is tastefully decorated, there’s a bowl of Jolly Ranchers on the table, and a brilliant autumn sun is shining through the windows; nevertheless, I am surrounded by the things of death.
I’ve been given permission by the cemetery staff to help myself to coffee in their break room. As I pour myself a cup I spy a cartoon caption on their bulletin board, “Life is priceless. Death will run you about six or seven grand.”
It was a long drive from the funeral home out here to George Washington. Joe and I talked shop on the way. I told him that, what with all the funerals I’ve officiated in my career, I’ve begun to recognize different types of grief. The most common I just call “Good Grief.” That’s when grandma goes home to Jesus after living ninety years of peaceful life and everyone says, “She was a good woman. It was her time.” It makes me think that Shakespeare’s Marc Antony might’ve been wrong. It seems the good that we do lives after us. The evil is oft interred with our bones. And I’m okay with that.
As we always do on All Saints, we at Faith Lutheran Church will light candles for each of our beloved dead who have passed since last November 1st. I’m thankful no one from the congregation has died this year. As I look at the list of those saints whom my parishioners wish to have remembered, I only recognize two names.
Rick Fluehr was a funeral director I’ve worked with for twenty years or more. He was 59. He often joked that he had me on speed dial and would call whenever an un-churched family needed a clergy to bury their dead. Rick was an undertaker’s undertaker. He cared deeply about the families he served and was a 100% professional in all he did. I once noticed he would wrap the skirt of the caisson around the handle of a casket before he touched it so as not to leave fingerprints. He was faithful in little things and big things as well, generous, a loving dad and husband, and infinitely patient.
Once Rick and I were returning from a burial at the Washington Crossing National Cemetery when he got a call from an irate customer. He put the call on speaker as he was driving and needed his hands for the wheel. I listened as the caller made unreasonable demands, failed to listen to Rick’s explanations of why he couldn’t oblige her, and—essentially—accused him of incompetence. I was shocked by the rudeness I heard in that call. Rick, however, kept his cool and was nothing but polite, apologetic, and sympathetic.
When the caller hung up, Rick quietly said, “You know, Pastor, people get upset when their loved one dies, and some feel they have to lash out at someone. I just take it. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.”
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…” (Luke 6:29)
At Rick’s funeral mass, Father Chris of St. Charles Borromeo said, “You can tell a lot about someone by the way they receive communion.” I didn't need to see him receive communion to know that Rick received Christ in his heart. I could see the way of Christ in his actions.
The other name I recognize on the necrology is that of Richard Fargason. Richard was the brother-in-law of Joy, my most colorful elderly shut-in member. Joy is, to say the least, unique. She has her own interpretation of events which doesn’t always reflect a firm purchase on practicality. It is something of an understatement to say that she can be demanding. Richard would indulge her, however, and do so with divine patience and kindness. He was her care-giver. He did her shopping, fixed what needed fixing in her house, looked in on her constantly, and showed as much love as any brother could—this joyfully and without complaint and in spite of his having a host of his own health problems. He passed away form a long-undiagnosed cancer at age 79.
Richard was a sweet, polite, southern gent from Georgia. Joy’s brother, Stan, said of him, “He’d do anything for anyone. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”
“…and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you…” (Luke 6:29-30)
When I gave Richard the last rites in the hospital, he proudly told me that, even though he wasn’t a regular church-goer, he’d been baptized by full immersion in the Baptist church in Atlanta when he was young. It must’ve taken.
Both Rick Fluehr and Richard Fargason illustrate the Gospel appointed for All Saints (Luke 6:20-31) as both men seemed to choose the way of Christ over the ways of this world. The things this world values—riches, fame, and power—are transitory. We’re feeling blessed today but feeling woe tomorrow. That’s because our values are not God’s values. In the end, if we wish to be remembered, if we wish to leave a positive impact, it’s best to do things Jesus’ way. It’s better to ask humbly for a spirit of wisdom as the inheritance of our baptism. It’s better to receive Christ with a joyful heart and a spirit of submission so that we may also receive the gifts of compassion, patience, mercy, contentment, and the humility which allows us to love selflessly and be loved in return.
I look out the window of the cemetery office and see the beautiful leaves drifting down onto the lawn. I see the monument of General Washington on horseback, erected to honor those who served our country, and I think of the worlds of an old hymn:
“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know:
We may not count her armies, we may not see her king;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.”
God bless, dear saint! Thanks for reading.
PS – The hymn I’ve referenced was composed by Gustav Holst in 1921 with lyrics by Cecil Spring-Rice. You can listen to Katherine Jenkins sing it by clicking HYMN.