At most funerals I hear the phrase “celebrate the life of,” yesterday at the funeral for my friend Willie W. was the first time I actually saw it happen.
Like Willie himself this was because of a rare confluence of things.
First, I think it was because of Willie’s spirit and the amazing assortment of people who he cared for and who cared for him. Willie and I were not close friends despite knowing each other for about 20 years. We belonged to the same faith-based assistance group and saw each other in church basements on a regular basis. I liked him a lot and admired him and talked to him but we didn’t hang out together other than that. What I admire about Willie was he accepted people as they were. He didn’t seem to suffer from my own fear of what others might think that sometimes keeps me separate from my fellows. If he did suffer it — and he was human, so it was likely sometimes he did — he didn’t let it stop him from being friendly and welcoming. Willie’s smile always made me feel like I could just tell him whatever was on my mind or in my heart. From what I saw of how other people responded too him, I wasn’t alone in that feeling. Before the start of the Mass, the family invited people to say a few words about Willie and everyone of us mentioned how he made us feel welcome and how he was always going out of his way to help others. One man who spoke said he didn’t know Willie that well but did know his son and that showed him what an amazing person Willie was because of the family he helped raise.
Second was the community of the church where the funeral was held. Willie was a long-time parishioner at St. Mary of the Angels, a Catholic church in Roxbury. As a result, the priest — Fr. Jack — actually knew Willie and could speak from his own experience about him. This was also true for the other clergy and laypeople of the church. So this was not a funeral held in a church, but a church community holding a funeral. Also, the St. Mary’s community is much more ebullient than many I’ve seen. In part this is because they are mostly African-American and have a tradition of openly expressing their passion for their faith. However I know that is not the only reason. My formative religious experiences were in a mostly caucasian Charismatic/Evangelical/Pentacostal Catholic community, where people also felt free to shout, sing and raise their voices at times other than those merely required for responsorial reasons. Because of that I’ve always found quiet congregations odd or at least uninteresting. Many people I know (myself included) will happily shout with enthusiasm for a sport even on TV but will sit quietly when they attempt to face God.
Third was the celebrants. Fr. Jack, the lead priest, went out of his way to welcome and make people comfortable with the service. Before it began he noted that it was likely there Protestants, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists there and explained the different parts of the Mass in terms that emphasized the common ground for all of us. He talked about the liturgy being stories and lessons and wisdom which might have made it easier for people of different backgrounds to listen to them without feeling like they were being — forgive me — preached at. His co-celebrant was Fr. Pat, who was deaf and both spoke and signed his parts of the Mass. He spoke as many of the deaf do in a way that is not as certainly enunciated as the hearing can but this just seemed to add an intensity to his speaking. When he both spoke and signed “the Word of God” it came across as much more immediate than I had ever heard from someone who wasn’t hearing impaired.
While this was a well-planned funeral, the best parts could not have been planned — they just were.