By Kathy Berken
When my friend Pam said that saying grace at a casket at a funeral home is probably the best prayer one could pray at that moment, we both just stared at each other. Wait. What?
I told her about the time I took my then-toddler son Aaron to his first visitation for a colleague of mine. I knew the importance of teaching young children about death and its accompanying rituals, so when my colleague Tom Sawyer died, it was the perfect opportunity. I had explained to Aaron that Mr. Sawyer’s body had died but his soul went to heaven, so it would be good to go and talk with his wife and children, and say a prayer for him. I described as much as a 4-year-old needed to know.
Aaron and I walked up to the casket, knelt down, and I whispered that this was Mr. Sawyer’s body, so let’s say a prayer. Aaron spontaneously started: “Bless us O Lord and these thy gifts . . .” and then we finished the prayer together. Aaron immediately said he wanted to get a drink of water, and can we go home now?
Since that day some 37 years ago, I thought about how sweet it was to hear Aaron pray the only prayer he could think of at the time, but I noted mentally that it was not one I would have chosen.
This is the story I was telling Pam, a third-generation owner/operator of the family’s small-town funeral home just west of Green Bay. The look of surprise on her face when I said that Aaron’s prayer was sweet but inappropriate told me that no, this was probably the most appropriate prayer one could say! Because, she said, all is gift. “We limit the grace prayer to food, but grace is all around us,” Pam said, “so we should approach the casket with that same mindset.” The person who died was, and still is, a gift of grace, and what better prayer than to ask God to bless us and the gifts of our loved one’s presence and memory.
As the adult faith formation coordinator of the town’s only Catholic church, Pam now plans to use this simple meal prayer as an example of how important it is to continually connect the events in our lives as being part of God’s encompassing creation. Pam is in the unique position of knowing just about everyone in town, and people pay attention to her wisdom.
Quoting Catherine of Siena — All the way to heaven is heaven — Pam said, “We don’t always notice because we’re mostly busy with the 10,000 things of daily life. Yet, God is in the 10,000 things. I try to be intentional in my looking, in noticing, in receiving those things as gift. And, in the midst of walking with people in their deepest sorrow, that noticing allows me to help others notice: we are not alone.”
Further, we can easily be caught in a routine of saying particular prayers for particular occasions, and so we might never consider praying a Mass prayer, for example, as a mealtime or bedtime prayer. But why not? It wasn’t God who separated all these wonderful rote prayers into categories. We did that, and I’m guessing that God wouldn’t mind one bit if we expand our repertoire to cross-reference our prayers to give added meaning and life to those we formerly considered appropriate for only one occasion.
“Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts” can be applied to kneeling before the casket of a loved one, to standing in a buffet line at our family picnic, or to sitting out on a fishing boat with friends waiting for a bite.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)