“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
The words take on new meaning as I stand next to a man lying in a temporary casket a few feet from the cremation oven in a local funeral home. The deceased is surrounded by his family members. We all hold hands and lift up prayers of thanksgiving for this earthly body, and prayers of thanksgiving for the heavenly body which awaits this man, and ultimately all of us. Goodbyes are said … kisses are bestowed … and we close with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. I find myself thinking of my confirmation classes, oddly enough, when I tell confirmands that God gives us the words of the Lord’s Prayer for times when we cannot find the right words to pray. This is one of those times. I don’t voice the “ashes to ashes” litany. It already hangs in the air around us.
A short while later I am back at the same funeral home in a greeting line for a church member who has died unexpectedly. It is a visitation, so there is no casket present. I offer my condolences to the family, who I have not seen for a couple of years. We talk a bit about a graveside service a few weeks down the road. It is not a setting in which any liturgical language would be in order, just human condolences and small talk. But the “ashes to ashes” formula hangs in the air … around me, at least.
Within a couple of hours I stand at the graveside of a woman who had died a few months ago. She has already been cremated. Her family gathers around the urn, quietly talking about their lives and the places where those lives intersected with that of the deceased. I lead the graveside liturgy, and finally speak the words that have defined most of the encounters I have been a part of thus far that day. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her …”
A few hours later, I finally have the opportunity to move on with my theological life, as I meet with a bride and groom and their families for a wedding rehearsal at a local farm venue. The air has an electricity to it that is fueled by the love the couple has for each other, the anticipatory joy of the upcoming ceremony, and the modest anxiety the couple brings to the mix. We briefly run through the marriage rite, skipping much of the actual text that will be spoken. I actually read aloud most of the text of the marital blessing, because I love reciting these poetic and beautiful words … and there it is … “Bless them in their work and in their companionship; in their sleeping and in their waking; in their joys and in their sorrows; in their life and in their death.” “Ashes to ashes” is not uttered … but it is present. I may be the only one that truly engages the potency of the words, but that potency is present, none-the-less. And I am reminded of the circle of life. And I am oddly comforted … and also encouraged. The day has come full circle – with God present throughout.