This afternoon I presided over the funeral service of a woman whose name I had never heard until after she died, when a funeral director unknown to me gave me a call.
She was in her late eighties, and she and her husband, who died last winter without any subsequent notice to their church (that would be my church), had apparently become estranged from everyone on their lives. No children, but a few surviving siblings, their families, and an assisted living facility filled with people, with none of whom they maintained relationships.
In addition to my own congregants, I have visited with several people who live, or lived, in various forms of institutional care here, and who have at most a tangential relationship to our church. They come to my attention one way or another, and I go to see them. Sometimes I simply sit with them for awhile, sometimes several times over the course of weeks or months, because I believe that the dying should have companions, even ~ or perhaps especially ~ if they have no way of knowing who, or whether anyone, is present to them.
But this elderly couple did not come to my attention, which means that neither of them was ever even mentioned in a passing conversation.
How does this happen?
How can someone live into her eighties, become widowed, and slowly slip away, without anyone at all remarking upon her existence?
As it turned out, about twenty people did show up for her service, including two nurses who have cared for her for the past two years. None of them were able to shed much light on her life. In talking to everyone before the service, I learned that she had effectively severed all family ties, and that no one knows why.
The others who materialized were from a military veterans' group and from the United States Navy. The lady in question had served in the WAVES during World War II.
Thank God for the gift of imagination. My homily emerged from Psalm 139 ~ the God who accompanies us everywhere, the God to whom even the darkness ~ in this case, the darkness of the human heart and mind ~ is as light ~ and from my imaginings about her life. She had once been an adventuresome girl who joined the Navy, she had had colleagues at a number of jobs, and she has a large extended family.
The general consensus of those who spoke to me afterward was, in the words of one relative through another, "That gal did a great job, especially with nothing to work with."
But I did have a lot to work with. Things happen. God loves, anyway. God heals and restores. It's a mystery.
That's the story.