At Large : Good words
The bride and groom believe they are the centerpieces of the marriage service. The mourners believe it is the departed who is the focus. In both cases, they're wrong, though not entirely. Of course, the wedding guests are devoted to the newlyweds, and the family and friends at the graveside hold the living image of the dead foremost.
But the centerpiece of each service - that is, of the words and the structure of the occasion - is God. The words and the structure for parting from the loved one, or for embracing the newlyweds, organize the occasion, no matter the separate participants' individual regard for God, or for the wide variety of his earthly caucuses.
It is the enduring words that seem to matter somehow to all. At a committal service Saturday, beneath the gray, wet clouds at Abel's Hill cemetery, Don Lyons, a broadly experienced, deeply compassionate former Episcopal priest and a newspaper colleague of mine for more than two decades, presided. Though he is no longer a practicing clergyman, the betrothed and the grieving often ask him to manage these hallmark occasions for them. He is not the sort to demur.
Saturday, at the top of a low hill, the moment so windless and dreary that even as it persisted the continual rain seemed to lack conviction, Don, in black and managing his umbrella and his own edited version of the Book of Common Prayer's language for the Burial of the Dead, led the farewell. From his blurred, rain tattered text, he comforted the mourners and implored God's assistance with the separation. Two difficult tasks. Beneath our own umbrellas, I said to a friend, Don does a wonderful job, doesn't he, although he does have the support of those terrific words. My friend answered, It helps if you believe.
And, of course it does, although among the small, wet crowd whose members reminisced about the daughter, sister, partner, and friend who had died, there was certainly a variable attention and allegiance to the words Don spoke, and to the message they offered. Don's prayer ended, and they sang, not hymns but the songs she might have enjoyed were she with them, other than in spirit,
Don had reordered this climactic passage. He made it less ecclesiastical, less demanding of yours or my allegiance, and he knew it would work anyway. Had he followed exactly the prescribed language of the Book of Common Prayer, for instance, he would have delivered as follows the pure point of the moment [stage directions in italic included here by me]"
"Then, while earth is cast on upon the coffin, the celebrant says these words:
"In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our [sister] and we commit [her] body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless [her] and keep [her], the Lord make his face to shine upon [her] and be gracious to [her], the Lord lift up his countenance upon [her] and give [her] peace. Amen."
Also, because the Episcopal caucus (at least some of its adherents) countenance change when they must, the BCP allows us to commit the departed to the deep, or the elements, or its resting place.
And, then there were prayers, lots of them, begging God's loving attention to dead and alive and testifying to the profound belief of all assembled in the mysteries that undergird this language and this moment.
You've heard all this or some variant of it, perhaps in the sad rain at a graveside service elsewhere. And, perhaps neither yours nor anyone's hopes have ever been so sure and certain as the Book of Common Prayer would have it. Still, the part about "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" absolutely stuck.
It is the sticking power of these words and the others that struck me Saturday. Forgive me for bringing politics into this, but do you remember in the 2008 Democrat primary campaign, when Hilary Clinton, then Barack Obama's opponent and now his Secretary of State, chided the upstart challenger for what was expected to be her title? She said a lot of his promises were "just words." A stinger, for sure. But, wait, his potent left jab darted and struck, "Words matter," he replied. He was right, of course, though the exchange was hardly the clincher in the long, tedious primary war. And, sadly but predictably, both of them have done a great deal since to drain the blood and worth out of words generally, as I suppose politicians are built to do. But, Saturday, at Abel's Hill and at many like events, happy and sad, across Martha's Vineyard and the nation, the true fact is that words did matter. They persist in framing for us, when we are most in need, those occasions when nothing but words will do.
I suppose it doesn't matter what the authors of the liturgy meant to be the focus of their exquisite language. What matters is that their very good words, well chosen and carefully ordered, serve each participant according to his or her needs.