I’d like to share with you a poem by Bohemian-Austrian poet, novelist, and mystic Ranier Maria Rilke. It is entitled “Death” . . .
Before us great Death stands
Our fate held close within his quiet hands.
When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine
To drink deep of the mystic shining cup
And ecstasy through all our being leaps—
Death bows his head and weeps.
Death remains a deep mystery to me. I’ve done more memorial services than weddings and for eight months before coming here to All Saints I worked as a hospice chaplain. Every week I visited with people who were dying, and over those eight month had dozens of patients I visited pass away. Yet I do not think death will ever lose its profundity. On page 464 in the Book of Common Prayer there is a prayer entitled A Commendation at the Time of Death, which I prayed with Jeanne, her daughter Margaret, and son-in-law Mike, just minutes before life support was removed. Yet even having become acquainted with death as I have, this prayer for Jeanne was prayed through tears as I hardly made it through it. The prayer reads as follows:
Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world; In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you; In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you; In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you. May your rest be this day in peace, and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.
Minutes after this prayer, her life support was removed, and Jeanne had indeed departed from her earthly journey. Her departure was gentle, ushered in with utmost respect by the hospital staff, and that great dignity that she held in her being was visible and manifest even to her last breath.
I have learned so much about Jeanne since her passing, and today’s service is in some ways Jeanne’s last earthly gift to you. She planned this service down to the slightest details. Typically it takes time to plan a memorial service like this, with what almost feels like an interrogation of the closest family members: shall the service include Communion or not, what hymns did she like, what scriptures were important to her? Jeanne’s gift to us meant all these questions were answered, so the family could grief, rather than plan and face a liturgical interrogation. In fact, she left nothing to my discretion or guesswork with notes like:
Prayers of the People – New Zealand Prayer Book p 833 replaces prayer on 497
Blessing – New Zealand Prayer Book p 838 etc.
As I was preparing for this service, of all the readings and hymns one song she chose really struck me: The Strife is O’er. Cutting out the 17 alleluias, the song is truly a poem:
The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun.
The powers of death have done their worst,
but Christ their legions hath dispersed:
let shout of holy joy outburst.
The three sad days are quickly sped,
he rises glorious from the dead:
all glory to our risen Head!
He closed the yawning gates of hell,
the bars from heaven’s high portals fell;
let hymns of praise his triumphs tell!
Lord! by the stripes which wounded thee,
from death’s dread sting thy servants free,
that we may live and sing to thee.
This song is actually an Easter song, and speaks of Christ conquering death and opening for us the path to eternal life—“ from death’s dread sting thy servants free, that we may live and sing to thee.” It is clear to me from these readings and songs that Jeanne held in her heart a confidence in the love of God and the beauty of the heavenly country where her journey from this place would eventually bring her. I join her in that confidence, and invite you into the assurance of her journey to reunion with her husband Herb, her parents, and her Lord.
After Jeanne had passed and I had returned to my office, I found her file with notes on her service and texted her son Mike a message that said, “She had her memorial service meticulously planned out” to which he replied, “That’s my Cal Berkeley grad mother!!” Jeanne’s a sharp one. She was a force even up until she went to the hospital—faithfully attending Sunday worship and church events, carefully scheduling people to serve at our service every week, this beautiful service she planned shows a depth of theological insight, and she was not one to fool around. Ken Wright tells me that for a long time he had been planning to build a bulletin board for the wall just to the left of the stage in the parish hall, which had been a bare wall for years. One Sunday Jeanne approached Ken asking something along the lines of, ‘So when are you going to get that bulletin board done?’ I like this woman’s style, and as Ken explained, ‘If Jeanne’s on your case about something you’ve got to get it done.’ She’s a mighty force. And that life force we know as Jeanne is so strong, it can’t just disappear into nothingness as non-Christians sometimes speculate about death. She’s so real, such a force, such an amazingly strong soul that’s almost proof to me that there has to be somewhere that energy and wonder is channeled.
And Jeanne knew exactly where that would be. She planned a space for cremains to be stored here in the church’s columbarium alongside Herb’s because she knew that just as their cremains would remain side by side in this shadow of herself she leaves behind that they would be together side by side in the glory of the Kingdom.
Jeanne—I am honored to have walked this path with you, am humbled by the witness of your life, and inspired by your legacy. Indeed, my friend, The strife is o’er, the battle done, the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun.
Lord! by the stripes which wounded thee, from death’s dread sting thy servants free, that we may live and sing to thee.
Sing on, Jeanne. Sing on!
© The Rev. Justin R. Cannon