The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
The family I grew up in was very antiseptic about death. They didn’t like funerals…they preferred memorial services after the fact. They didn’t talk about death, and I’m not sure they really knew how to grieve and mourn. I knew something about that was not healthy, especially after my dad died when I was 25. About ten years later, I was a Stephen Minister at First Congregational UCC in Boulder and a first-year student at Iliff. I was paired with Roy Brammell, a delightful, wise man in his 90s who had been the founding dean of the School of Education at the University of Connecticut fifty years earlier. And when I joined the family to visit Roy’s body at the mortuary, as I saw his tall, thin body, and it struck me that this was an empty shell…that Roy was no longer there. To me, it seemed that the body and the spirit were no longer connected. The senior minister, Bruce MacKenzie, asked if I’d like to help lead Roy’s service, and I said I’d be glad to. For the service, Roy’s adult children collected some of the things he had written over the years on a wide variety of topics like citizenship, education, duty, faith, and so on. They took turns reading these heartfelt pieces Roy had written, and it seemed to bring Roy’s presence back, even to revivify his spirit. (And I started crying in the chancel, and I had no Kleenex…so that was a lesson learned…never lead a memorial service without Kleenex.) Roy’s community of faith gathered to offer thanks to God for his life, to send him off prayerfully, to remember him, to surround is family in a loving embrace, to “rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.”
Everybody has a story, whether we are homemakers or professors or deans or clergy or laborers or physicians or farmers or unemployed or businesspeople. God knows our stories…and I think it is a natural sentiment that we want others to know our story, and I suspect that we all want to be remembered. That’s an important function of a funeral or memorial service, or even of the bronze plaques honoring those buried in our memorial garden at Plymouth. Sometimes when I go by those names at the end of our gallery, I touch the bronze plaques, intentionally recalling the people named there, and I remember their stories and pray for them.
I have a strange affection for old cemeteries, especially those attached to Congregational churches in New England. Looking at the artwork and reading what people chose to record on gravestones makes me curious about the stories of the people they commemorate. One of my favorite cemeteries is at First Congregational Church in Kittery Point, Maine, where I served as the sabbatical interim minister during the summer when I was in seminary. It’s a beautiful location on the shore, overlooking the harbor where the Piscataqua River flows past Portsmouth, New Hampshire into the Atlantic Ocean. I did some gravestone rubbings when I was there, and one struck me particularly, and I have a rubbing of it hanging in my office. It is the headstone of The Rev. Benjamin Stevens, who lived from 1721 to 1792. Stevens had to walk a fine line during the American Revolution between Tories and Patriots, and in 1776, the wealthiest family in the church, the Pepperells, left Maine for England, never to return. (The church still uses the communion silver and baptismal bowl given by their patriarch Sir William Pepperrell.)
Everyone has a story, and here is what we know of Benjamin Stevens from his gravestone: “In memory of the Rev’d Benjamin Stevens D D Pastor of the First Church in Kittery, who departed this life in the joyful hope of a better, May ye 18th 1791: in the 71st year of his age and 41st of his ministry.
In him, the Gentleman, the Scholar, the grave divine, the chearful Christian, the affectionate, charitable & laborious Pastor, the faithful friend & the tender Parent were happily united.” With that eulogy in stone, Stevens’ story inspires me as a pastor 229 years later.
When Stevens died, a minister from nearby Portsmouth preached at his funeral, and accounts say that Kittery harbor was filled with boats from near and far, and that the crowd overflowed from the meetinghouse.
This is one of the things that churches do: we help to remember the people whom we have loved and who have died. We help to provide a ritual that helps those in grief to have a place to mourn with others, to receive love and support from friends and fellow parishioners, and to be the church for one another. And there is more…we offer prayers for those who have died. We commend their spirits into the arms of God, asking for them to be received “into the company of the saints of light.” Maybe if you’re young or if you’ve never had a brush with death, it may not seem terribly important to you, but when I die, I want someone to pray for me. A funeral or memorial service is more than a celebration of life, it’s also an act of giving thanks to God, who entrusted the gift of life to us.
As a church, we gather on this Sunday every year to name those dear ones who have died since last year at this time. It is a poignant and deeply meaningful rite that we observe. Year after year, we come together to name the names, to recall the people and their stories, to lift them up to God in a spirit of love and remembrance. This is another reason it’s almost impossible to be a Christian without a community around you. Even when we have to wear masks…even when we’ve used more hand gel than we could have imagined using in a lifetime…even when we are worshiping together via Vimeo, even when we can’t give one another a physical hug…we are here for one another not only for ourselves, but as the hands and feet, eyes and ears of Christ in the world today.
“Let love be genuine; … hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection…Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer…extend hospitality to strangers….Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…and live peaceably with all.” Paul gives us a tall order, but I know that this congregation — even in the midst of a pandemic, even on the cusp of a divisive election — this congregation will be there for one another and for our community. I’ve seen you hold the light for one another when someone is experiencing the shadows of grief and despair. God calls us to be there for each other, and you do that with grace, openness, and generosity of spirit. So, let us enter a time of remembrance for the people we’ve loved and lost these past twelve months. Let us remember their stories, and let us hold one another in our hearts.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.