Home Journal Issues Journal Index Blog Search Contact Us Help

Volume 1, Issue 3
Autumn 2005:

The Widow's Might

William Zeckhausen, D.Div.

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Autumn; 1(3):a7

Thirty five years ago, fresh out of seminary, I was a young turk learning the trade, so to speak, at a venerable old church in Boston. As an apprentice pastor, I was routinely assigned tasks considered to be beneath the importance and dignity of my superiors.

One day I was told that an elderly widow, unknown to the clerical or administrative staff at the church, had taken her life. In the will, or perhaps in a note left with the body, she made one request: that her funeral might be conducted by a minister on the staff of the historic Old South Church on Copley Square. The senior minister asked me to take charge of the widow's request.

I was given next to no information about this woman. She had no relatives, and no other person's name was provided through whom I might learn more about her. I had no idea who or how many people planned to attend the service. I was given only a time and a place for the ceremony and a couple of hours to prepare the service, nothing more.

Not certain of the location of the funeral home, and not wanting to risk getting lost on the way, I decided to take a taxi. Upon my arrival, no one was present except the funeral director. He handed me an envelope with a check from the woman's estate as payment for my services.

I learned that the funeral director was the only other person who would be attending the service. Apparently he hadn't known the widow either. I supposed that he probably attended several funerals of strangers every week and had no particular investment in this one. My first impulse was to return the envelope and depart. This woman obviously meant nothing to him, nor did I.

I felt uneasy delivering the service only to him. I also felt sad that this lonely woman, with no known relatives or friends, had taken her life, leaving behind just one request — and no one knew why. No one at Old South Church had ever heard of her.

Somehow I had to deal with my feelings. I found myself imagining that the widow was present during the service, and that I was there to fulfill her one wish. With that thought, I proceeded to deliver the service — not for the funeral director, but for her. Imagining that she was there, I didn't feel so foolish reading the words I had prepared. Imagining her presence provided some meaning to me as I spoke to an indifferent audience of one.

Now I realize that in my awkwardness and insecurity, I assumed the funeral director to be indifferent, but really I had no idea what was going on in his mind as he fulfilled his part in a routine obligation.

If I had it to do over again, I would have chosen to share my feelings about the awkwardness of the situation we both found ourselves in. I would say that I appreciated his presence during my readings; I would tell him what I had in mind while presenting the service. Perhaps that would have added meaning to our time together. At least I might have connected with him in a more human way, probably one of value for both of us.

I departed feeling grateful that a way to address this "event" had come to mind. Rather than giving in to my first impulse to refuse the envelope and leave, I accepted the check. To return it would have felt like a rejection of the woman.

Every now and then this memory returns to me — the poignancy of that situation, and the mystery of who that woman was, and what her experience may have been at the end of her life.

Return To Top