In the past several months there have been a plethora (if that’s a good word to use) of deaths among my friends and colleagues. I have been to some of their funerals, but others not, depending on my closeness to the deceased and the family. Over the years I have conducted many funerals, but lately I’ve been thinking about my first funeral.
I was in seminary and was not yet ordained. However, as a member of the Capital Yacht Club, I was designated their Chaplain and said many prayers and held several yachting related services for them such as at Thanksgiving. So, I guess it was natural that they asked me to conduct a funeral service for one of the members.
The deceased had been missing for perhaps about a week before the body was found floating under one of the docks. The family was quite upset, as one would expect, at such a completely unexpected sort of death. Drowning, that is. No one considered it suicide or homicide, just a very unfortunate accident. Alcohol was not involved it seemed, just a fall into the water off a dock, hitting the head and then the subsequent drowning. The deceased was a live-aboard at the Yacht club.
The burial was to be “at sea,” or at least in the Potomac River. The body was prepared for burial in a proper container. The owner of a boat volunteered to take the grieving family, the body, and myself out on the river for the committal service. It was a gray and misty day. One of those days you see in the movies, very suitable for a funeral.
Being as how this was my first burial, and one at sea at that, I was rather nervous. I put on my surplice and cassock (which I used at my field education church), grabbed my prayer book, and boarded the boat. The Rite for Burial was in the prayer book, so it was really just a matter of reading the service. The family boarded the boat with a large pack of rose petals to scatter as the body was committed to the sea.
We reached an appropriate cove for the service and committal. I opened my prayer book and recited the burial office with appropriate prayers and committed the body to the sea. The captain of the boat ceremoniously and reverently threw the container containing the body overboard and, presumably down into the deep. The family in tears began throwing rose petals into the water. Well, the box floated and did not sink. Oh, my, God, I thought, now what should we do? The captain retrieved the box while I conferred with the family.
It was decided that we should open the box and throw the remains overboard since it was obvious the box, even though weighted with concrete blocks, was not going to sink. And, so that is what we did. We opened the box, took out the remains which were in a plastic bag, and after saying an additional prayer, committed them one more time into the river. The family wept some more and threw the remaining rose petals into the water. I was relieved that the remains sunk immediately!
With the empty box and a weeping family we motored back to the Yacht Club, and I prayed that I would never again have to deal with such as disaster of a burial again. Who knew that the damn container would float? Really. However, as we docked and headed our ways, the family thanked me profusely for giving their beloved cat, Casper, a proper burial at sea.