It was one of those weekends that probably only happens in the lives of priests (or other clergy). Last fall, a long-time member of Grace died after a protracted and debilitating illness. As I talked with her surviving husband, I learned that he wanted her ashes to be interred in his family’s plot in Chicago. He sought my assistance in finding an Episcopal priest to say the burial office. I made an initial inquiry at St. James Cathedral but as I reflected on the situation and spent more time with the widower, I realized that this was something I needed to do. I expected that I would be the only person in attendance.
In the meantime, we received word that the Rt. Rev. Bill Wiedrich, former Rector of Grace Church and Assistant Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, had died. After several weeks, arrangements were made for a memorial service at St. James Cathedral to take place today. I decided that this would be an opportunity for me to inter the ashes of the former member of Grace and I made the necessary arrangements.
So yesterday, we drove down from Madison to Chicago, arriving at the cemetery where we were met by the two nieces of our parishioner. We proceeded to the family plot where the four of us (myself, her nieces, and the funeral director) said the burial office, while the deceased’s sister listened in from Washington, DC on a cell phone. We helped the grave digger to cover the urn with dirt and lingered, watching as he completed the burial in frigid weather.
It was a brief, simple, powerful service. The words of the liturgy spoke of our faith in the resurrection of the body and our faith in a God who has created and redeemed us.
That was the first funeral, and the first bishop of the weekend; for the plot in which we interred her ashes was the plot of the one-time Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Chicago, Charles Street. The cemetery was beautiful, if rather foreboding on a winter’s day in February. Because it was on the Southside, founded in 1853, it had been passed by during the last 150 years of Chicago’s development as a city, and what had been an appropriate resting place for Chicago Episcopalians in the late nineteenth century had become a largely forgotten place at least to Chicago’s elite.
But we were warmly welcomed by the staff and I was shocked when the funeral director joined us in reciting the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. We said the words of the liturgy, the prayers, the committal, and we departed from that place, having done our duty to accompany our Christian sister to her place burial where she awaits her triumphal resurrection.
Today was markedly different. St. James Cathedral is in the heart of Chicago’s most exclusive shopping district, in the middle of wealth, glamour, and opulence. A monument of late-Victorian architecture and art, it dazzles the eyes. As all Episcopal liturgies of this ilk, the memorial service for Bishop Wiedrich was full of beautiful music, appropriate words, even incense. Many clergy were in attendance and the service included the participation of three bishops, the current Bishop of Chicago, Jeff Lee, the former Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, who was Bishop of Chicago when Bishop Wiedrich was Assistant Bishop, and Bishop Montgomery, who preceded all of them.
I had come because I thought it appropriate as Bishop Wiedrich’s successor as Rector of Grace, to be present at this service as a visible presence of the connection of our office and the continuity of the church. I thought it important to bear witness to the Church’s relationships across time and space.
It was for some of those same reasons that I had decided, in the end, to come to Chicago to inter Eve’s ashes. Yes, I could have found a priest to say the burial office for her. But it was something I could do, without too much trouble, to bear witness to her life and faith, to offer words of consolation to her loved ones, and to speak again, the great words promising resurrection.
Whether it takes place in glorious majesty and music witnessed by hundreds, or in a forlorn, cold, and snow-covered cemetery in what is now a Chicago ghetto, the rite of Christian Burial is a witness of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the general resurrection. It is one of the most profound and powerful ways that we are present as Christians in the lives of others, in their grief and in their hope. And whether we say those words alone, or with hundreds, or with two young women and an African-American funeral director, they are words of comfort and hope, consolation and faith. And when we say them, in whatever context, they are words of Good News of Jesus Christ.
And all those bishops? They too are symbols of our connection with the saints who have gone before, with the Church Militant and Triumphant, with the great cloud of witnesses.
Let Light Perpetual Shine Upon Them.