Funerals often produce interesting conversations. Especially when the funeral follows the tragic and unexpected death of the matriarch of a massive family with deep history in and connection to the local community. This was the case with the funeral for my grandmother last week. There were so many interesting conversation topics—everything from the ethics of assisted dying to eccentricities of family history to Trump to atheism to, of course, the life that my grandmother lived. But one theme that popped up over and over again, indeed seemed to weave its way through most of the others in some form or another, was a deep sense of nostalgia.
For starters, the funeral itself was an occasion for nostalgia for many. It was an impressive and, at times, overwhelming spectacle. The church was quite literally packed to the rafters, with overflow seating spilling into every corner of the foyer and even down the sanctuary aisles. The singing was majestic and inspiring, accompanied by strings and brass instruments, and led by classically trained musicians (my family has some pretty impressive musical talent). Old hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “How Great Thou Art” were sung in full-throated four-part harmony that brought tears to more than a few eyes. My cousin sang a delightful folk song that she had written for my grandmother last summer (it’s been getting regular Apple Music play for me since) and which I have no idea how she got through dry-eyed. The tributes to my grandmother were witty, humorous, tender, and, well, accurate. Someone quipped to me after the service that this was one of those rare funerals “where no one had to lie.” It was, all in all, a grand and moving affair.
And for many, it offered a poignant reminder of what church used to be like. I lost count of the number of conversations I had to this effect over refreshments after the service. The funeral took place at the church of my childhood, the church that my grandparents played a key role in, the church where they raised nine kids, none of whom, for the usual array of reasons from the geographical to the theological, currently attend there. There is a sadness that accompanies realizations like this that come at funerals like this. Can you imagine what our church would be like if everyone had stayed? Do you remember when families had deep histories in churches and communities like this? What’s going to become of us? Why don’t kids stick around anymore? Boy, it sure was nice to hear singing like that again… So nice to see the church full. Nostalgia seemed to bleed through every hypothetical question, every wistful longing, every half-hearted sociological or theological diagnostic of the times.
I’m not immune to such nostalgia. Obviously. It was pretty incredible to see a family and a community come together like this. I remember getting up to speak and having to take a moment to get my bearings. Like many pastors, I’m not exactly used to looking out and seeing standing room only. And it felt very good to be a part of such a service—the singing, the tributes, the conversations and connections in the hours after the service itself. It did call to mind a bygone age for the church—an age before words like “post-Christian” and assumed narratives of decline became the wearisome stock and trade of our ecclesial vocabulary.
But, of course, nostalgia isn’t terribly useful. The church of my grandmother’s era—heck, even the church of my own childhood—likely isn’t coming back, at least not any time soon. And it’s easy for nostalgia to gloss over some of the harder realities of “church like it used to be,” no matter what the denominational context. Some have experienced the church to be rigid and oppressive. Some have found little theological room to breathe. Some have hovered on the periphery, unable to penetrate thick walls of in-group mentality. Some grew weary of a church that failed to engage important cultural issues and contented themselves with afterlife affairs. Funerals can be spaces where some of these sources of disagreement are temporarily suspended for the sake of peace or memory or general good will, but they all come rushing back in on Monday morning.
My nostalgia is channeling in a bit of a different direction a few days on. I am nostalgic for the kinds of worship and community experiences that the funeral represented, certainly, but more than that I’m nostalgic for the kind of life that my grandmother lived. I think of her resilience in the face of adversity, her strength of character, her devotion to prayer, her commitment to serve, her faith forged in far more difficult material circumstances than mine, her deep commitment to family and her stubborn refusal to allow us to drift apart… I think of all this and more and I wonder if this kind of a life will become as rare as a packed church with marvelous hymns in four-part harmony.
These kinds of lives don’t just happen, after all. There are priorities and practices that form and sustain them—priorities and practices that are nourished by institutions and assumptions that we have not tended well, priorities and practices that have not been picked up in the same way by those who follow in her wake. We should ponder these things, I think. I write this as a self-indictment as much as anything. I long to be as faithful, loving, generous, and forgiving as my grandmother was and I am painfully aware that these dispositions don’t just drop, fully-formed, from the tree.
All is not lost, surely. It’s not as though we can do little more than regretfully wave goodbye in the face of experiences and lives like this. We can listen and watch and remember and learn and hopefully grow. We can resolve to better tend what we have neglected or ignored. Not in order to reproduce the (imperfect) past, not to uselessly marinate in dewy-eyed nostalgia, but to live well into a future that is no less in need of faith, hope, and love than the past.