This week, I conducted a memorial service for a man who died in Menorca aged 89. At the age of 19, he served in the Arnhem campaign, during the closing stages of World War 2. He was wounded while trying to save the life of an officer, for which he was decorated. He would occasionally talk about this. What he would never discuss was being a part of the reconnaissance party that encountered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, liberated almost exactly 70 years before his death. Like many of his generation who experienced trauma and horror, he internalised his feelings, and just got on with his life. But who knows what demons haunted him?
Six people came to his service, along with me and his son. The rest of his family are in England, so the memorial service was arranged primarily for those who knew him in Menorca – which I suspect ought to have numbered more than six. Nevertheless, those of us who were there gave him a dignified memorial. His son arranged pictures of his father and the rest of the family, to give them a presence there. I suspect that those who stayed away had their reasons – relationships that had soured, or incidents that caused offence, and I suspect that the son was far from faultless. Yet I felt sadness that an occasion for paying respect and possibly for healing was allowed to slip past.
I have noticed that when a family experiences a death, one of two things happens. The family may draw together, united in sadness and grief, and becoming closer in bereavement. Or the stress of dealing with loss may accentuate old or new offences and hurts, and exacerbate divisions.
It would always be better to seek reconciliation before those we love and cherish come near to death. Sadly, this does not always happen. In that case, at least the memory of the deceased would be served better if reconciliation could occur, in an occasion to recognise that in grief we have much in common.
I often tell people that funerals and memorial services are more about the survivors than the deceased. That is generally true. But the focus is meant to be on thanksgiving for a life that has passed, to allow the expression of shared grief, and to uplift hope of life in resurrection. The one who has died deserves to be the focus of attention, with hurts, offences and divisions set aside. A prayer that I often use at funerals is for those who were close to the one who has died to be closer to one another. That is one of the best ways to pay respect to the dead.