This Saturday I conducted a memorial service for one of our members who died about a month ago. In actuality, it is unclear when he technically passed away, but we know for sure his decomposed corpse was found in his home on August 31. I was there at its discovery.
I was in the office that day assembling materials for Rally Day when the security system dispatcher for this man's property called me to say the police were down there getting ready to break in andwanted to know if I had a key. Apparently the mailman had alerted the police that morning to the fact that the mail had piled up so high that he couldn't get any new mail into the slot. When I hung up the phone and walked down there (his house is the house directly behind our church--literally within 30 feet of the altar), the police were outside waiting for me. The rain was coming down fairly hard that day, but I could smell the stench in the driveway immediately. A nervous nextdoor neighbor wrung his hands, holding out hope that maybe the guy had simply taken off for some other residence that none of us knew about without leaving notice. The suspense was ended when, a few minutes later, a group of firemen showed up with their gas masks and broke in a back door. Conditions in the house were pretty grim. Apparently he was in such an advanced state of decomposition that they can't really determine what killed him. No one knew anything about him because he was such a recluse. He had not been active in church for the past 8 or so years, and he didn't communicate with many people. Thankfully, as the pastor of his church, I was able to do a little digging and give them some leads on family members. The policemen and I stood around in the rain awhile while we waited for the coroner to come. It didn't take too long for our conversation to drift away from the macabre to the mundane. I remember feeling a strange sense of negligence, as if I should have known this might happen.
I had last visited Paul in the hospital in late May. He was only 48 years old. The coroner's report won't be complete for another 3 months, they say, but they’re fairly certain he had heart trouble and diabetes. He had no family except for one estranged brother. He had no close friends to speak of, and no job. The brother contacted me a few weeks after he received the information about his brother's death and arranged this short memorial in the church, but he admitted to me he doesn't know enough about his brother even to tell me what to say. I was prepared for the fact that it might have just been the two of us in attendance at the service. Thankfully, about 17 people showed up to pay their last respects. None of them--save one--had seen Paul within the past several years.
I know that these kinds of grim, sad situations--and worse--happen every day. I think it's wonderful that, in spite of the forlorn circumstances of Paul's life and death, we at least paused to remember him, spoke the gospel into the despair, and let it do its work. What keeps haunting me though--if I may use that word--is that for at least two weeks, (maybe three!) our congregation rallied for the Eucharist right there at the altar, and I elevated the body and blood of our Lord within feet of his decomposing body, and we weren’t even aware of it. One of our very own departed this life "right under our noses," so to speak, and yet we didn't even know it until our nostrils sensed that awful odor. That juxtaposition of such life and death, such community and loneliness, such vital purpose and decay, startles and saddens me. “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” Can God still pull us into the center in spite of the isolating, decadent forces that want to leave us out in the cold? Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”