Laura Jean Fender Funeral, April 27. 2019
1 Corinthians 15:20-26,35-38,42-44,53-58
Grace Episcopal Church, Radford VA
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
In the Episcopal Church we still do funerals. That means that, though we may talk of a “celebration of life” or a “memorial service” to ease the discomfort associated with funerals, we still gather in the church as a community, read these scriptures and pray these old prayers together. In that way we are joined as a community sharing the burden of our brokenheartedness. This is the liturgy of the Burial of the Dead in our Book of Common Prayer. We don’t really like that sort of language. But this doesn’t mean that this hour must be full of sorrow and pining. No. This hour is all about joy because of our belief in resurrection. This is not just because this particular funeral comes during this time of Easter (though isn’t it just perfect that we have all these extra Easter flowers?), this morning we come together to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and the promise of our own resurrection and the promise of Jeannie’s resurrection. So, this is not just a “celebration of Jeannie’s life” it is not really even a “memorial service” though those names for what we do here today fit. This is a funeral. And funerals are celebrations because we believe in the resurrection of the dead.
That’s why we wear white and put out white hangings and flowers and say Alleluias, for saying “Alleluia even unto the grave” is how we see it. We are here to celebrate Easter. Easter for Jeannie.
There’s a saying that all of this is easier when the loved one lost lived a good life. I’m not sure it’s really easy in any way to lose her, but Jeannie did live a good life. She was kind and caring, especially with the special needs children she taught for all those years. I’ve always been quick to call a special needs teacher a saint.
She was also an artist who painted landscapes because, in her words, “I love to paint the macro world full of fractals and abstract patterns that only nature can provide.”
I had to look up the word “fractal” when I read that in the Artist Statement about her that is in the bell tower. A fractal, according to my dictionary is “a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.”
I am grateful to her for that gift. I will see the patterns in nature anew now.
Jeannie is also remembered for her generosity. Apparently her gifts keep on giving. One example of her generosity is that she would give hand-me-down clothes directly to the parents of her less fortunate students. Rather than send them to Goodwill or the clothing bank this sort of gesture comes through relationship and guards dignity. I’m sure you can think of all the other ways she gave to others from the heart.
Through her love of nature she taught her students to appreciate nature’s ways. One friend remembers that the students in one of her classes published their own personalized journal about nature. She was a good teacher.
She was also a good daughter, wife, mother, friend, and member of many groups, particularly the PEO sisterhood and this church.
So it is hard to say good-bye. It is always hard to say good-bye but especially to someone as kind and beautiful as Jeannie.
I hope and pray that the readings we have read together this morning are of great comfort in the face of this great loss.
Isaiah proclaims that the Lord “binds up the brokenhearted” and “comforts all who mourn,” and says that God will give us a “garland instead of ashes, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” I don’t know about you but that passage leaves me feeling all cozy, wrapped up in God’s quilt.
St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, and through them us, that though all in Adam die, “so all will be made alive in Christ,” the first fruits, “O death, where is your sting?” Where, indeed is that sting? Our faith comforts us.
And St. John tells us that Jesus said, this is the red letter Gospel truth part, Jesus said to “not let our hearts be troubled” because “there are many dwelling places” for us. That sounds sort of like a free reservation at a nice resort for whenever it’s time to go.
But it is the words of Psalm 90 that I want most to lift up for you this morning.
10 “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty.”
Jeannie turned 70 two weeks before her death. So this part of the Psalm jumped out for Richard. “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty.” Other passages of this Psalm, if I may dismantle it backwardly, continue this theme of exasperation with the brevity of life:
10b “the sum of (our years) is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone.” 3 “You turn us back to the dust and say, ‘Go back, O child of earth.’"
But there are other passages of Psalm 90 that are quiet comforting:
5 “You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass.” This is the image of a peaceful death, of a passage that is as light as the dawn of a new spring day. The Psalmist goes on: 6a “In the morning it springs up new.”
The point of the Psalm, you see, is not that life is short and difficult and then you are gone but rather, God’s time and love for us is huge and we too are more large than we tend to think. We are not limited to the lifespan dates of our birth and death.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth,
or the land and the earth were born, *
from age to age you are God. (says the Psalmist)
4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past *
and like a watch in the night.
And the best news is the first verse:
1 “Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.”
The Lord will continue to be our refuge and our strength as we live into and through our grief in our loss of Jeannie.
Richard shared with me some thoughts about his loss. One is that “every morning when a couple wakes they should (each) tell their significant other “I love you” and the significance is if you don’t do it, one day it will be too late.” Richard feels he didn’t say it enough to Jeannie.
But I am sure he did. I am certain that Jeannie knew how much you loved her, Richard, Nathan, I am sure she knew the love of all of her family and all of her friends. Because the way that we show our love for each other is not in just saying it each day, it is in all the little ways we show grace to each other, patience, understanding, the way we share a smile or laugh at a joke. It is in the way that you knew her. The way that her memory lives on in us. You were her friend, her cheerleader, her confidant her rock. All of you, in some small way loved Jeannie and she knew it.
Richard asked me to share the story of Jeannie’s final moments in this life.
Richard’s good friend, Drew Cormier (pronounced Core Meer) came all the way from Spencer, Massachusetts when Richard called to let him know that Jeannie had fallen ill and he stayed with Richard over the weekend following Jeannie’s death on Feb. 7. Drew, his wife Carol, Jeannie and Richard had taken several cruises together and become close friends.
A couple of days later, Drew was sitting at Richard’s kitchen table. Richard was at the sink washing a dish and they were discussing the events of the week leading up to Jeannie’s death.
Richard told Drew there was just one five minute window in which no one was in the hospital room with Jeannie. Her sister, Mary, had stepped out to the cafeteria for a takeout sandwich, Richard had gone home to feed and walk the dog and no hospital personnel were in the room for that moment. That is when Jeannie left this world. Like a lady.
Drew said “Richard, you know my mother is Catholic. She said a rosary for Jeannie at 6:30 that evening and asked God to take Jeannie into his hands. What time did she die?”
Richard told Drew “She died at 6:30.”
For Richard, as he puts it, “this is a testament that there is a Higher Authority and He showed up for my wife at 6:30 p.m. February 7. Praise be to God.”
Praise be to God indeed.