When I mention that Father Dan wrote the sermon for his own funeral Mass, people are sometimes taken aback–people, that is, who didn’t know him. “Wouldn’t somebody else have liked to say something?” one of them asked me, implying that Father Dan was presumptuous or egotistical. Well, someone else did speak: his friend Father Paul Rosing’s remarks were beautiful and funny, as were his brother Father Bob Begin’s. But the one person everyone ached to hear from was Father Dan himself. He met our need, as he did so often during life.
When Father Bob stepped to the lectern, he pulled out a folder (about 29:45) and said, “He did write it out for me,” and everyone laughed. Bob first said a few words of his own and ended with a moving reflection, but in between, he read the sermon that Dan himself had written last summer, when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
Since my ordination, it has always been my duty and my privilege to preach family funerals. So much so, that family members have been particularly nice to me because they were afraid I would get the last word in if they met their demise before me. Consequently, I prepared this, trusting that I could depend on someone to read it as my funeral sermon. Then they can go on with their own comments, and I will be at peace.
The author of the Book of Wisdom speaks so confidently of an afterlife in today’s reading, long before Jesus came and long before most of his contemporaries knew there was something more after this life. I suspect he or she was a keen observer of nature and saw beyond the present to the past and the future.
Where we came from–the miracle of life’s beginning–is maybe the most profound miracle of all. Think of it! Two gametes or half-cells come together in quite a violent collision, and an impenetrable wall surrounds them. Then both die as gametes and become a one-celled human. That dies and becomes two-celled; two become four, four become eight, eight sixteen. Each moment something dies, each moment something is new, and each moment somebody remains the same. Everything that will ever be in us other than food, water, and time (and the many parts and pieces that doctors implant) is in our life at each stage. Each of us can look at every stage of life and say, “That is me.”
From conception, we are programmed to be something that none of us will ever see on earth! Going back to that very first stage, it must be like heaven on earth! In those early stages, the womb must be a very beautiful place and plenty big. Floating with no pressure on any part of the body in this lovely personal lake, we don’t even have to breathe. Mom can be hungry or thirsty, but we will have what we need. The temperature is always perfect! No one to bother us, because we are the only creature in the world.
Then it starts to get a little tight, and the head finds its way into the birth canal. When the labor begins, the constant pressure on the little creature’s head that never before felt pressure must be interpreted as dying, which lasts for varying amounts of time. The head presents itself, the baby comes out, and, with that first breath, it dies as a water creature and begins life as a land creature. Its pond now gone, air surrounds and supports this new stage of life, and the journey continues. Each moment something dies, each moment something is new, and each moment somebody answers to the same name.
Let your mind wander back over those stages of life. It is clear how in each of them we have our own treasures that we can’t imagine living without and patterns of life that we consider essential for happiness. At each stage, we have to let go of things, like the bottle, the binky, the dolly, people we love, and so on. Experiences like being fed, carried, and supported have to give way to new experiences of independence. Often these stages of total dependence come back as an unwelcome guest to minds accustomed to freedom. With each stage, dying gives way to a new stage, while we feel very much the same.
I believe death is a new stage with a profound transformation into a new way of being . . .what we were programmed to be from the start. As the first breath marks our death as a water creature and our birth as an earth creature, so our last breath marks our death as a corporeal creature and our birth as a spiritual creature. As air sustained us on earth, perhaps grace and light sustain us in our final form. I will let you know as soon as I find out.
This process, though terrifying in some ways and certainly difficult in many ways, also borders on the thrill of the possibility of what is coming. Like our first time leaving home, getting married, getting ordained, or doing anything that demands a letting go of the past and an embracing of the future, this process demands fear, doubt, questions, and hesitations. There is also the dream of potential beyond our imagining, which calls us forth to this Creator who is leading us to fulfillment and entrance to the eternal life ordained for us in love from the beginning.
Briefly, I would like to say in my own life’s journey, I have been blessed beyond imagining. Born into a huge family filled with love and with a mother filled with wisdom and unconditional love, I was surrounded by people of every age in just about every kind of circumstance available—good and bad. I learned much about the world I entered right in the confines of my own home. Our faith as a family was one that was strong, and that belief bonded us together.
My forty-one years as a priest helped me to continue to build and extend this family, as others invited me to be intimately involved in their families. They truly have become my family, too, from various races and cultures and ways of life. Generations of joys and struggles and victories, dreams and fears, fill my head with stories and bring me joy.
The privilege of sharing my parenting skills with my sons and my daughter, shared with their biological parents and families, has enriched my life. Grandchildren are a gift that needs no explanation for those who have them. Who would have guessed that as a priest I might have such a privilege?
Each of my assignments has filled my life with not only parishioners, but friends and more extended family, who have made my journey what it is.
As I become whatever I become, I take all of this with me, and my heart will stay bonded with you until we meet again. I part with only gratitude, as I say, “Thank God, thank you, and I will love you. Please love one another as I have loved you!”