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I met Paul Boardman over 30 years ago, when we were both seminarians. The son of Navigator missionaries to Japan, and an alum of Calvin College (where often people mistakenly called him “Borgman”), he approached me one day and said, “Hey, you have a Dutch last name!” After seminary, Paul worked in business in the Far East. Like most long-term relationships, we’ve gone years without being in touch and then, for whatever reason, reconnected a few times.

More recently, Paul has been working as an interfaith funeral celebrant in the Seattle area. I called him to talk about his work. Our conversation is below.

A Celebrant

What is it that you do?

I work for the largest funeral home group in the world, with 1,500 locations across the US, and about 20 locations here in western Washington that I work with. My job title and my business card say “Celebrant.” Some people call me a chaplain, and I’m comfortable with that.

I preside at funerals and memorials and graveside services. I help the bereaved say good-by to their loved ones.

I work with unchurched people who don’t have a pastor or religious leader, and also with some people who have been ill or institutionalized so long they have lost touch with their religious community. I have worked with the nominally Buddhist. Every stripe and color of “spiritual but not religious”—a big category out here in the Pacific Northwest. I have worked with Native-Americans who were brought up Catholic and then fell away and didn’t really know what to call themselves. Some atheists and some hyper-evangelicals.

Most often the way it works is that I travel to the family’s home and we go over the possible elements in the service. I want them to feel comfortable. I listen to their stories of the deceased and consider that their gift to me. Then I distill it down to what I heard as significant, the tone and the color they shared. I try to gift it back to them in the service and my eulogy. I tell them back the stories that they told me.

But then, unlike a pastor or priest or rabbi or other religious leader, I move on. I usually send the loved ones a copy of my eulogy, along with some blessing or well-wishes, encouragement to take care of themselves.

I typically do about 2-3 services a week.

What Do You Say?

Are people receptive to you? In a region known for its secularity, are they open to traditional religious elements like scripture or prayers or even mention of God?

Yes, they are very receptive. And interestingly, probably 95 percent want some elements that are from traditional religion, often Christian. We talk about what they are comfortable with, what would be representative of their loved one. People are looking for something familiar and comforting. Even if they aren’t especially religious, they probably know some words or scriptures or prayers.

Often, their theology is pretty generic. I hear all sorts of cosmologies about how to express the “hereafter” or “where souls go.” Very few want absolutely no reference to any sort of life beyond—that “Uncle Joe is now simply grub-munchies!” I’ve been asked to do an altar-call. I don’t do that, but I do invite reflection, of course. I may offer a “blessing” of gratitude to the Universe, to the Ground of Being, to Mercy-and-Love for our beloved.

We are holding the deceased before God no matter the designation. So I feel comfortable abiding by the parameters of a non-religious person. My blessings are my prayers.

Recently, I was working with a family who lost their teenage son in a terrible crash last summer. He has lingered in a coma until now. That mother is so angry. Spitting mad. And she gave me strict orders not to mention God during the service. No way! She said, “God took my son away!” So the directive is no scripture. No mention of God. No prayers. When I sent her my draft Order of Service, she came back at me, “What is a Blessing?! Are you sneaking in a prayer?!”

People are looking for comfort, per the Heidelberg Catechism. Our belongingness to God, whether named or not. We belong to Christ. We belong to each other.

I think that there is still resonance in people for the idea of heaven as “perfect connection,” “complete belonging.” And in the disruption of death—and let’s face it, death is almost always a big disruption—our relationship with the person has a huge readjustment. There is transformation in death. We are made new and find that there is often healing and reconnection, or a new connection is made, in death. It has been so for me, with the death of my parents. And I am privileged to bear witness to this happening with some of my families. Our worlds are re-ordered.

Then there is also an element of resolve, a resolution to live more fully. Love, like it’s the only thing left for you to do. Hug your kids a little closer. Treat your own life a little more seriously. And ponder your own cosmology a little bit harder. Is there an afterlife? What happened to Grandma?

Big Picture Stuff

After doing this for a while now, do you have “big picture” reflections on your role and the people you serve? What does it tell us about modern society, our world, human nature, and more?

Not sure that this is so “big,” but story-telling is redemptive. And rites and rituals, liturgy, can help us tell our puny story, can give a frame to our story in ways that are incredibly healing.

As I have done more and more of these funeral services, helped hundreds of families say their goodbyes, I’m convinced that the more deeply we say our goodbyes within the streams of tradition, the more moored and grounded we feel. We feel grounded in the story of our community and people. When we unite our voices and sing a hymn for example, or when we process together past the casket, when we stand together and sit together, pray together.

I wonder, and this sounds counter-intuitive, whether the Pacific Northwest “spiritual-but-not-religious” trajectory away from traditional forms of faith might actually reverse itself at some point. We grieve better, we heal better, we stay better grounded when we shed our tears in the streams of tradition, in community, when we tell the story of our person in the context of a bigger story, when we belong. We are not our own. What a relief!

Your Own Journey

How has this work affected and changed you? Tell us a bit about your own journey.

I became involved with death-care about six years ago, first interested in funeral directing. I had a feeling that I wasn’t doing what I am built to do. I sensed a need, especially among the “spiritual but not religious.” Although, as I’ve mentioned, they’ve turned out be more religious than I expected.

My journey is probably best captured in a little experience I had about three years ago. I was assisting in our funeral home, but the service wasn’t “mine.” I walked up to this older gentleman who was presiding, and I introduced myself to him, offering to assist in any way he needed. He was very nervous and said, “Well, I’m used to preaching and even doing funeral services overseas but it has been years since I have presided over a funeral in the US.” Long story short, he had been in Japan with the Navigators and had known my father. When he heard my role at the funeral home, he almost shouted, “Then you have a tremendous opportunity to preach the Gospel!” It caught me off-guard at first. But as I was doing the AV and assisting with other chores during that service, I came to think about what the Gospel is and what preaching the Gospel means.

Surely, to love and honor the dearly departed is Gospel. To well-remember the dead, with gentle affection and respect. To gather together and tell stories, tell the good news. To feel the absence of them so acutely that we cry out to God and to each other. To know that the Kingdom of God is right here, broken and in disrepair, but somehow still present when we are rightly present to each other. When we use words, however inadequate they are, to comfort one another and to assure those left behind that their precious one is beside their still waters, in their green pastures, wherever that may be. Isn’t all that Gospel? The Gospel is in our hugs and in our tears. The Gospel is in the music, in the artwork of the embalmer, in the handful of dirt we scoop up and rain down on our person in their blank space. The Gospel is in the backhoe driven by the Mexican immigrant filling the soil tight to the casket vault. The Gospel is in the repast we share after the service is over, recounting the stories of the dead and how they live on “forever in our hearts.”

Yes, I thought, the man was right. In my work, like my dad, I live in the Gospel and have the Gospel preached back to me. It is a tremendous honor and privilege to be invited into these families, families I did not know, and now to share this big, auspicious moment and dwell with them and help them tell their person’s story.

God is big and so I’m okay with using names and words that some might consider namby-pamby, too broad, maybe weak. I feel blessed to be with these families. It is what I am called to be. That’s what keeps me going. I don’t get burned out. I’m thriving. I’m excited about my work

To end, I’ll quote my favorite poet, whose name I can’t pronounce well, but Milosz, “Either these speechless stones, or life whose condition is death, and this beauty that elates you” My faith is less about belief and more about the amazement and astonishment at all the blessings we have received from God. “This beauty that elates me.” My faith is dwelling in the place of amazement for all that we are given. I hope that is communicated to the families I serve.

Thank you, Paul.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

7 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    So much to think about. So much I don’t know here. So much to say yes to. Much I could say no to but don’t. Such a valuable piece you have given us to read today.

  • Jim Schaap says:

    Fascinating, Steve. Thanks. I recently attended a Roman Catholic funeral–first one ever–and was blessed by the liturgy of the mass. I couldn’t help feeling not simply that the sacrament was an immense blessing, but that, to the family, the tradition itself was also, if that makes sense. “I’m convinced that the more deeply we say our goodbyes within the streams of tradition, the more moored and grounded we feel.” I’m happy to have read that, to have read the whole interview, especially the section on “the gospel.” Once again, thanks!

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for an interesting article that expands our narrow vision. Coming from a Reformed tradition, it’s easy to let our confessions define the gospel or what we think about God. Being put in Paul Boardman’s position has forced him to see the big picture much more broadly, a necessary perspective to be effective in his job. He’s been led to think outside the box, which is difficult for most of us.

  • One of my long ago baptisms in fire was a shared baptism with a Catholic priest. The child was stillborn, dad was sorta Lutheran, mom was adamant lapsed everything. Their brutally stripped away facades demanded a solace within the parameters outlined by your friend. They really did all the heavy lifting and we
    were blessed too. Thanks.

  • Kent says:

    Thank you, Steve. We serve a big God, don’t we? And His beauty does elate me–when I am thinking clearly. Thank you, again, for capturing and sharing this interview with your friend.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    The whole post lives and breaths the gospel … not a hammer, but a poem … thanks for sharing this.

  • Shirley Borgman says:

    Thanks Steve..I appreciated Boardman’s ideas. We share “our gospel” in many ways.

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