In a moment of crisis, The Book of Common Prayer does the heavy lifting

November 15, 2007

In early June, on an otherwise routine Monday morning, I received a call from my friend Sam, who lives in Arkansas. I felt a chill at the sound of Sam's voice, and with good reason: Sam had called to tell me that his wife, Dana, had died in her sleep the previous night.

Dana was not just a casual friend. She had become part of my family's life about 30 years ago, when she joined St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in northern Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In time, Dana bonded with my father so deeply that she came to call him Papa. (She would emphasize the second syllable in honor of Dad's Cajun heritage.)

For years I knew that Dana considered Dad her father by informal adoption and that Dad considered Dana his honorary daughter. Still, I resisted considering Dana my sister, thinking that this title (apart from its generic use in many church circles) meant that we shared a childhood and the unique torments of sibling rivalry.

I finally changed my mind about that in early 1992, when Dad entered a hospital with congestive heart failure, had bypass surgery and a valve replacement, and died after about a month in intensive care. In that time, I came to appreciate the depth of love and commitment that Dana felt for Dad. I told Dad, without any promptings from him, that I would consider Dana my sister for the rest of our lives.

It was a costly promise, and I knew that. Dana had a sharp tongue, did not suffer fools gladly and considered all too many people either foolish or malevolent. She often left a trail of wounded people in her wake, and staying in relationship with Dana required lots of work. Nevertheless, Dana had a rich sense of humor, a ready and free laugh, a heavenly soprano singing voice and a fierce commitment to those she loved.

Dana's sudden death created a crisis. Sam wanted to honor Dana's wishes to be cremated and to have her ashes scattered at a nearby Episcopal camp where she had spent some happy times as a teenager. But Sam also wanted to honor the wishes of Dana's only child, Sarah, who wanted to see her mother's body and say a proper goodbye. The day after hearing of Dana's death, we converged on Arkansas from across the country. Sarah flew in from Los Angeles, I flew in from Richmond, Virginia, and two other longtime family friends, Emily and Mardi, flew in from Washington, D.C.

We all knew, because of Dana's desire to be cremated, that time was short. A private service was scheduled for the morning after our arrival, but without a minister. Emily told me she had found a copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer among Dana's treasured possessions. It was a beauty: A compact size, embossed with the name of Dana's grandmother and namesake, its leather cover bearing the wrinkles of time.

We agreed that some kind of prayer was important, but we also sensed it would be unfair to Sam's non-Episcopal family to ask that they engage in an Episcopal version of call-and-response. The 1928 book offered just the right prayer. I touched Dana's cold arm as I read it aloud:

"Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection until eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to the judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself."

The next morning we gathered to scatter Dana's ashes. I asked Sam if I could hold the box for a moment, and the ashes still felt warm. We drove to the Episcopal camp. Sam, Sarah, Emily, Mardi and I all touched the box of her ashes as I read this passage from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer:

"O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our prayers on behalf of your servant Dana, and grant her an entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."

Mardi offered a prayer in Spanish as we all continued to touch the box with Dana's ashes. We prayed the Lord's Prayer together.

It was a great comfort to know that both prayer books expressed our deepest hopes better than we could hope to with a spontaneous prayer, and to give ourselves over to the care of those words.

We struggled for a while to find a space where the wind was not blowing Dana's ashes back into our faces. It felt important to scatter Dana's ashes into the majestic valley beneath the camp. Emily and Sarah finally found a spot where a small tree was growing. It offered shelter from the wind and a good landmark if any of us ever wanted to visit again and remember Dana's life.

Dana had spent her final few years feeling mostly estranged from the Episcopal Church, but never fully estranged from church life. Her membership was with a United Methodist congregation when she died. As Sarah and I drove to the camp that morning, she said she wanted to snap a photo of the familiar sign that says, "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You."

On that wind-driven and reverent morning, I loved that simple message more than ever before.

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