When I was a young boy, there was a popular television program called "What's My Line?"
The object was for the contestant to guess the occupation of the mystery guest.
In those days I would have thought that my present occupation was really odd. Who would ever do what I do? Who would want every appointment to involve people who are experiencing perhaps the worst day of their lives, to have my office full of people whose worst nightmare has just come true?
Every client is brokenhearted. No one ever wants to be in my office. Tears are a part of each conference. No one comes in happy. There is a common denominator, a thread that binds them together.
It's called death.
My line? A funeral home chaplain in full-time bereavement ministry. What an honor to begin the journey of grief with so many good people:
* The family of a young teacher killed in a random shooting.
* The parents of a newborn who died in his crib.
* The brothers and sisters of a homeless young man whose body was found in the bushes.
* The husband of a young wife who committed suicide.
* The children of an elderly man who died after many years in an Alzheimer's unit.
* The family whose mother smoked heavily and died 20 years before her time.
The procession of appointments goes one by one, day after day, week after week. My line is really not a job but a special calling, a vocation. It is a great privilege to be called to bring consolation and peace to so many bereaved families.
Years ago there was an unforgettable Irish pastor who had a great love of song. He would get up onstage to entertain his flock with hat and cane in hand. Invariably at the end of the evening, he would choose that great old tune, "Me and My Shadow" as a final number.
Although he was a man who loved people very much, the song always conveyed the great loneliness that can be so much a part of the human condition. That song sums up the feeling associated with losing a loved one, especially one's life partner.
Me and my shadow strolling down the avenue.
Just me and my shadow, not a soul to tell my troubles to.
And when it's 12 o'clock I climb the stair,
I never knock, 'cause nobody's there.
Just me and my shadow, all alone and feelin' blue.
The loss of a loved one is an incredibly difficult experience. The disbelief, the pain, the desperation, the loneliness, the questions, regret and anger are all part of the grief journey. We cry out in the night, but no one seems to be listening or to really understand.
There are no rules or guidelines that fully apply when your heart is broken. You have to face the grief head-on. This is a strenuous ordeal. You should not try it alone.
A person with no faith in God or his promise of heaven views death quite differently from a believer. It has to be more difficult. If the cemetery is our final destination, our grief is heightened enormously. Nonbelievers feel they will never see their loved one again.
We had a Christmas consolation service in our funeral home chapel for all families who had lost a loved one in the past year. As they lit a candle and decorated the tree with memorial ornaments, we remembered our beloved family members.
Those blessed with faith looked through their tears to our eternal home. Those struggling with the idea of faith held hands with us. Love embraces all people when you are heartbroken.
Those whom we have loved and lost are no longer where they were before. Spiritually, they are as close to us as the air we breathe or the heart beating within.
Sooner or later we will all be confronted with a death of a loved one. My 91-year-old mother suffered a stroke last week. It makes you put things in perspective.
If we are all bereavement ministers to one another in our families and put into action our faith, those without a belief in God or those still questioning can be touched very deeply by our care. This makes reporting for duty at a mortuary every day quite an adventure. It's my line.
On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor William Lobdell.