Funeral Eleanor Colaianni
April 28, 2017, St. Mark’s Emmaus Luke 24: 13-31
“O God of grace and glory, we remember before you this day our sister, Eleanor. We thank you for giving her to us,..to know and to love as a companion on our earthly pilgrimage. Amen”1
This morning as we carry the ashes of Eleanor Colaianni in and out of this sacred space, we are sacramentally carrying her back to God. We know she is already with God, but this funeral liturgy allows us in effect to shout out a prayerful petition to God, “God, get ready! Here comes Eleanor! A sinner of your redeeming, and a lamb of your own flock. You have given her to us, and now with gratitude for the gift of her life, we are returning her to you.” Our prayers are like prayers with the offering, “We give thee but thine own,” except in this case the offering is not money but the life of one we love.2
Eleanor died late in the evening of the second Sunday in the Easter season. That Sunday we heard how Christ in the resurrected life continues to come to all of us over and over again in community through locked doors and windows. In two days we will hear again the gospel Danny just read about two disciples leaving Jerusalem after Jesus’ death to go back home to Emmaus away from the trauma they experienced/ who meet Jesus on the road but do not recognize him. This morning we all as well are friends walking the road to Emmaus, coming to St. Mark’s, trying to find a safe place to process the long life and death of our dearly beloved friend. Like those on the road, we want to talk to each other about our friend, Eleanor, who touched so many lives.
It is indeed an early Christian tradition to tell stories about the one who died as her body is on its pilgrimage to its final burial place. We tell stories because Christians believe that death changes/ but does not destroy. Death is not the period at the end of a sentence, but more like a comma where Eleanor in death enters a new relationship with God AND a new relationship with us. Our experience is that God does not give us a loving relationship like hers and then let it stop abruptly with death. The relationship is still there/ but in some different form. We tell stories about Eleanor to continue that relationship as we see through the prism of her life, both in glad and sorrowful memories, refractions of the grace and love of God.
Eleanor died in her 95th year. I invite you to go back in your imagination to that date July 4, 1921, the day Eleanor was born on our nation’s 145th birthday. Eleanor indeed believed that our whole country celebrated her birthday each year as well. The first World War had barely ended two and ½ years earlier on November 11th. The 19th amendment, allowing women to vote was ratified just a year earlier in August 1920. Eleanor was eight when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929. She was 20 years old when World War II started on December 7, 1941. She was 31 when this church, St. Mark’s was founded on the Feast of Epiphany, January 6, 1952. In fact, Eleanor and her family were almost founding members of St. Mark’s joining in 1955 when St. Mark’s moved into the Wilcox Building. She joined the St. Mark’s choir the next year, serving faithfully for over 53 years in the soprano section.
Colaianna in Arkansas means music,/ and Eleanor was a huge part of that tradition,/ singing in the St. Mark’s choir,/ playing and teaching piano and playing the bassoon in the symphony. One of her favorite composers was Chopin, whose music Tim played today.
As you have heard from her granddaughters, we will so miss our friend.
Do our Anglican tools of scripture, tradition, and reason help us at all in processing this long life/ and now Eleanor’s physical departure from us, always too soon?
What does Scripture tell us about death? The New Testament describes how Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. Our mentor is telling us that weeping is what we should do. At his own death Jesus asks God, “God where are you?” He is telling us that doubting, arguing, feeling abandoned are feelings just as Christian as feeling held in God’s arms. Today we hear part of the Easter story. We know in our minds that Eleanor is now experiencing resurrection, but there is a part of our hearts that still wants her here with us physically to tell us in her very subtle way what we need to be doing and how much she loves us.
What does our Tradition tell us about death? There are many sermons and writings by people in our tradition who also have experienced the death of someone they dearly loved. Karl Barth, Friedrich Schleiermacher, William Sloane Coffin Jr, and John Claypool all preached about the death of close family members. All of these towers of faith were shaken to their roots. As they looked for hope, they wrote profusely and vividly about what did not help them in their grieving. One of the universal dead end theologies for these preachers was the often-quoted phrase that the death of someone like Eleanor’s was God’s will. This is not the God of my understanding, and it was not theirs. After the death of his son in a car accident when the car went off a bridge into the water, William Sloane Coffin preaches, “my own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that my son die; as the waves closed over his sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” I know this family felt God’s heart and presence with them as they lovingly surrounded Eleanor this weekend around her hospital bed in ICU.
All of these preachers finally do find comfort in scripture, but it is different scripture for each of them and not the usual one-liners that we all try to say to comfort one another. I think Eleanor would tell us to read and look for it, but the words will be different for each of us, but God will speak to us just as he did on the road to Emmaus when “he interpreted the things about himself in all the scriptures.”3
And so what does our reason tell us about death, which includes what is our own experience about grief and death? Just like Jesus on the road to Emmaus, our loved ones who have died are not only in a new relationship to God but also to us. We may only recognize their presence at certain times. Death changes but does not destroy our communion with the saints, those we love. We all have shared experiences of knowing the presence of loved ones after they died, doing things we knew we never had been able to do before because of some presence very near to us guiding, still caring for us. The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament gives us a wonderful description of this experience. As Elijah is about to die, he asks his beloved companion, Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha responds, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” Elijah says, “You have asked a hard thing.” You know the story. As Elijah ascends in a whirlwind into heaven, he leaves for Elisha his mantle or shawl. That will also be our experience. Eleanor has left us a mantle that all of us here will be wearing, carrying with us. Eleanor like Jesus is resurrected and will be with us always throughout all eternity. Her presence no longer depends on time and space.
When our loneliness is so deep that we cannot see or feel anything else, our reason, our experience, our tradition, our scripture tells us that though our pain is true, it is not the ultimate truth, Beyond all our pain is the beauty, truth, and love of God in Jesus Christ, which never dies,
that love which surrounds us with all the saints, who are with us throughout all eternity.
And so finally today our scripture is offering for members of Eleanor’s family and her friends an image/ to hold onto/ as we process her death. The image will be a road,/ the road to Emmaus,/ the road we travel when our loneliness is great,/ because we will so miss the person who taught us about unconditional love,/ but… suddenly at some time, like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus,/ the one they thought they had lost /is there by their side,/ with Jesus and all the saints with her. Sometimes he/they/she may be difficult to recognize. But we will know them when we invite them in/ by saying that prayer Eleanor so often heard at the closing of the many Evensongs she sang with this choir, “Lord, Jesus, stay with us /for evening is at hand/ and the day is past; be our companion in the way,/ kindle our hearts/ and awaken hope,/ that we may know you as you are revealed in scripture/ and the breaking of bread./ Grant this for the sake of your love.”4,5 Amen.
1Burial II, BCP 493
2Thomas Long, “O Sing to Me of Heaven: Preaching at Funerals,” Journal for Preachers, 21-26, vol. 29, no. 3, Easter 2006.
3Jeffrey J. Newlin, “Standing at the Grave,” This Incomplete One, pp. 121-130.
4Gary W. Charles, “The E Prayer,” Journal for Preachers, 47-50, vol. 29, no. 3, Easter 2006.
5Evening Prayer II, BCP 124.