FUNERAL/MEMORIAL SERVICE STORIES

KENAI PARISH

– At Ninilchik it was the custom to bury many individuals in the Russian Orthodox cemetery. When some one would die, friends would go to dig the grave, another friend who make the coffin and others would bring food to the bereaved family. It was a community effort. The entire experience felt good.

– At Kenai a family related to the Orthodox faith asked me to do a service because a Russian Orthodox priest was not available and it was the custom there to bury the body quickly.  I was very sick. I had a temperature of 102 and it was very wet and cool outside. I realized I would be putting my health at risk to assist them. On a hunch, I asked them if it would be acceptable for my wife to officiate. They accepted the offer. In the warmth of the parsonage, I prepared the material for her and she did the task. She was also a substitute teacher in the school across the street.  On more than one occasion she heard herself referred to as the “funeral lady”.

– When a local druggist committed suicide, I went to his wife’s home. A neighbor woman came by and proclaimed, without being asked, that it was so sad that the widow would not be in heaven with her husband because he had committed suicide. I told her off in front of the widow and then I did some homework on the issue and found out that I was right. The Bible gives no clear directive on the issue. The idea is based on assumptions, not fact.  I took three days of study, including interviewing a Catholic priest.  Justification for the idea was based on breaking one of the commandments. We don’t lose salvation for stealing, so that didn’t make logical sense.  I tackled the issue head on in my funeral message. One never knows the results of such things. But at least I was convinced.

– Over 100 people died in the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964. I officiated at two memorial services for six people. All of them died at Whittier in the tidal wave that devastated that area. When the mother of the three children who died got off the airplane in Anchorage, she was so upset that she started walking to the place where her children disappeared.  That would have been a distance of over 50 miles. I don’t know that she ever fully recovered.  Challenging situations to face as a pastor.

– When Chet Walker died at the Soldotna clinic, he and his wife had decided that he would have an ecumenical service, so they requested that myself and the Bible Baptist pastor would work together. We “dressed” his body at the Baptist Church and the service was held at the Methodist Church.  I had no idea how to dress a body, but the Baptist minister did. It was the first and probably the only time we did anything cooperatively. To dress a rigid body, you cut the back of a suit clear to the collar. Then you can tuck it around the body and it looks okay.  Simple.

We also split the worship service. He did the first half and I did the second half.  The Walkers had seven children from young adult to early elementary. As the Baptist minister, with a Southern accent, shared his part, he would refer to “your poor daddy” and everyone was in tears. When my turn came, I referred to Mr. Walker and the tears dried up immediately. A great contrast in styles.

– Some times relating to a family in grief can bring them back to church involvement. I discovered that a funeral home in Anchorage, located right next to First Methodist Church, was referring all Methodists to that pastor, even if they clearly lived in other parish areas, or to be specific if they lived in Chugiak or Eagle River or Birchwood, where I was the pastor. I visited the funeral director and gently told him of my concern. There was no change. I ended up doing some follow-up work with a family that lost twins and the mother was deeply concerned that her children would not be in heaven because they had not been baptized, which is not an United Methodist belief.  Again, the service itself had been done by the pastor at First Methodist and given the distance and his work load, there had been no follow-up.  I decided to write him a thank-you note for doing my pastoral work for me and he went ballistic, running to my supervisor.  My supervisor asked me to back off as the other pastor could not handle the tension.  But things got better, so I figured I am accomplished my goal.  I actually got some referrals.

One very sad case were two children who were killed by a truck and they were refused burial in “holy ground” because they had not been baptized.  I ended up trying to pick up the pieces.  Living in a remote area, they had not followed their tradition closely.  I found that position to be very cruel.. I tried to bring some solace into their lives.

– At Nome, bodies were kept in a container until spring because the ground was frozen, unless you had connections with the Department of Highways. They could bring in equipment to thaw the ground.  Not something I could change. I dressed my second and last body there.  A.young sturdent, with a known heart condition, dropped dead on the school ground. His father insisted on helping me dress the body. I was now the expert, having done it once before in Ninilchik.

– In Nome there were many tragic deaths. When one man that I knew very well through counseling died in Palmer, his body was not found for a long time. I mentioned his struggles in the service and I received a great deal of abuse for doing so. I didn’t defend myself at the time, but later his son expressed appreciation. His widow never did. Some of his alcoholic friends were so upset that they got drunk and blamed me.

– When pioneer educator Arthur Nagozruk Sr. died in 1978, the Administrator of the Community College and I were successful at getting a building after him. That upset some of the white establishment in Nome. That was not the entire point, but it was very satisfying. His adult classroom at the Nome Community United Methodist Church was also dedicate in his memory.-

– There were many tragic deaths there. When three young adults died together in a boating accident in 1979, I convinced the families to have a combined service for all three of them, instead of enduring three separate services. I was shocked and disappointed that they were buried separately due to racial customs.

– When Beverly Immingan died at age 27 March 27, 1979, in a form of suicide (she went for a walk without a coat in freezing weather) I did a wonderful service for her, but her death motivated me attack the issue of alcohol abuse in Nome. That led to two exciting years in Nome.

The funeral director in Nome had some patterns that I considered unethical, so I went into the casket business, ordering them through a sympathetic funeral director in Anchorage.   I devoted one room in the church for storage. It felt good to help people, especially in rural villages, to bury their loved ones quickly, as was also the custom there.

All in all, I have related to 163 funerals and memorial services.

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