Religion is an important source of strength for many of our members, so we’re asking clergy from different religious traditions to share how their members mark the end of a life. Chet Yoder served as pastor at the Bowmansville Mennonite Church for eighteen years before becoming the Director of Pastoral Services at Garden Spot Village in August, 2008. Garden Spot Village is a not-for-profit continuing care retirement community that is committed to Christian values and principles.
What does your faith teach about happens to people when their lives end?
As one who subscribes to the Christian faith, I believe that life continues following death. The spiritual connection we have with God is not discontinued by the death of the body. The Christian faith relies on the promises in the bible about the afterlife, which is often referred to as eternal life, life with its origin in the here and now, and which continues following the demise of the human body.
How do clergy comfort the dying? How do lay people comfort the dying?
Clergy often have specialized training in the care and comfort of the dying. We are taught to observe physical symptoms which suggest that death may be close. Often, we offer words of hope and encouragement from the perspective of faith. Sharing scripture readings, prayers, and music all are effective forms of ministry to the dying. And many times, simply being present is one of the most effective forms of ministry one can offer. Lay persons often offer ministry similar to clergy, depending upon the training they have received. We actively recruit lay persons to offer the ministry of presence to the dying when they have no one (family, etc.) attending to them when death is imminent.
How do members of the community traditionally respond to the death of one of their members?
The Garden Spot Village community often functions like a family when one of our members passes away. Residents offer prayers and words of sympathy and comfort if there is a surviving spouse, or to family members when they have opportunity. A notice of death, along with the time of the memorial service, is posted publicly so that neighbors and friends can offer their support and attend the service.
Is there a service to memorialize the dead? What is it like?
Very often a service is held following the death of one of our residents. This may be a funeral service several days after the death with the body present for viewing and visitation with the family. Many times a memorial service is held at the convenience of the family, sometimes weeks after the death event, which does not include a body for viewing but provides opportunity for visitation with the family and loved ones. The service will often include music (hymns, songs that were important to the deceased, etc.), a scripture reading and meditation, remembrances shared by family, friends, and neighbors. Often the service is followed by a time of refreshments and socializing in the lobby adjacent to the chapel. Occasionally when a resident dies who has been receiving nursing care in one of our nursing households, a brief time of remembrance will be held in the household. This service may include family, nursing staff, additional residents in the nursing household. On occasion we have used Skype to include family members in these memorial services who are able to attend the service.
What rituals of mourning are there in your faith?
I encourage persons to give expression to their grief. Sometimes, a spouse of son/daughter of the deceased will share a writing at the time of death or at the memorial service. Garden Spot Village chaplain staff provides for an end of life celebration ritual at the time of death. This bedside ritual includes scripture reading and prayers, along with placing a quilt over the deceased until the time of removal from our facility. The quilt is embroidered with a cross and butterflies, both powerful symbols of life and death in the Christian faith. I often have opportunity with families during the hours before the death of their loved one to encourage meaningful reflection of the life of their member, along with thoughtful reflection of the meaning of life (and death). At times my role includes encouragement to family and the dying person to “let go” and place themselves and their loved one into the hands of our loving God. I am a strong proponent of embracing “what is” and investing our energy into activity that is positive and proactive, rather than reactive.
Is there a particular amount of time allocated for grieving?
This varies greatly depending upon the family and attending circumstances of the death. Traditionally, memorial services were held several days following death, due primarily to the body being present for viewing and restrictions related to the necessity of burial within a proscribed amount of time. With the increasing popularity of cremation and decreasing practice of a traditional viewing, services may vary from several days following the death to weeks or even several months. Increasingly families are choosing a private internment of the remains with a public service held when family is able to convene.
What text or passage would you suggest to a member of your faith community who is grieving?
I have several passages which offer hope and encouragement. John 11 contains the account of Jesus’ grief at the death of his good friend Lazarus. Jesus, through his open display of grief, reveals to us that he also shares our grief and loss. Psalm 23 has been a universally loved passage which presents a pastoral view of the Good Shepherd who cares for his beloved in life and in death. I have also found Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 helpful in acknowledging the various passages of life, of which death is but one.
What words would you share to comfort members of our community who may be mourning?
I believe it is highly important to validate the unique grief experience of each person, as no two experiences are the same. I refrain from using sayings such as “I know how you are feeling” and “Don’t worry, God is in control”, believing that while we mean well with words like this, they tend to minimize the grief that persons are experiencing. I encourage persons to embrace their grief and assure them that God will hold them during this very difficult time. I often will remind persons that tears are a gift from God for occasions of grief and that we do well to use them. Many times, the gift of presence for those in grief speaks volumes more than words.
Is there a tradition from your faith that might be comforting for people of other faiths?
Perhaps the most helpful tradition I could highlight is one that is shared by persons of other faiths, that being the commitment of the community to share the grief experience. In our setting this occurs through personal visits, sending cards, an occasional food item, attending the visitation and service of the beloved, as well as remaining after the service for the food and fellowship which is in itself a wonderful support. We encourage participation in support groups as well and follow up with pastoral visits and specific information regarding the journey of grief.
A native of Mifflin County, PA, Chet Yoder has lived in Bowmansville for the past 25 years. Chet attended Rosedale Bible College in Irwin, OH, received his B.S degree from Lancaster Bible College in 1991, and a Master of Arts in Religion from Evangelical Seminary (Myerstown) in 2000. In addition he has completed 2 extended units of Clinical Pastoral Education and has done post-graduate work through the Center for Family Process in Potomac, MD. Ordained in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, Chet served as pastor at the Bowmansville Mennonite Church for eighteen years prior to coming to Garden Spot Village in August, 2008, as Director of Pastoral Services. He is married to Sandy and father of three sons. In his spare time he enjoys reading, gardening, walking, and various sports activities with his sons.