I was standing in the parlour of a Toronto funeral home, waiting for the friends of the homeless man we were about to bury. The funeral director was supposed to be retired, but he had stayed on to see the business through the transition to a new owner. Together, we looked through the stately front window toward the strip club across the street offering “the finest in adult entertainment.”
One of the dancers stood outside. She dropped her cigarette to the ground, snuffing it out with the pointed toe of her high-heeled shoe. Then she zipped up her long jacket and made her way across the street, heading to the service.
In Toronto, the city pays funeral costs for those without assets. But the stipend for clergy is so paltry that the funeral director had trouble finding a minister who would agree to perform the service.
I had said yes, but on one condition: I wanted to meet the family of the deceased. I was not willing to perform a cold and impersonal service for a man I knew nothing about.
To some it might have looked like I had come down in the world. Just a few years earlier, I had left my home in the Maritimes and taken a position at an Ottawa church. Our neighbours were the governor-general and the prime minister. Shoppers at the local grocery store were a Who’s Who of Canadian political life. I felt important, like I had arrived.
But I also knew that something was missing. My mother had raised me to visit nursing homes on Sundays after church, to know the names of the forgotten and the lonely, to volunteer at soup kitchens.
So, in 2005, I accepted a call to do something different. I left Ottawa and moved to Toronto to help co-ordinate the Out of the Cold program in the city’s east end. There I worked with church and community volunteers to offer hospitality, food and shelter to the city’s homeless every Friday night.
It was while I was working there that the funeral director had phoned. He was unable to meet my one condition because the deceased had lost touch with his family. The only contacts he had were other homeless men and women.
I arranged to meet some of them at a coffee shop to discuss their friend. Our conversation was rich and heartfelt, and I was honoured to be a part of it. Together, we planned an informal, simple, yet personal service to honour the deceased.
Just as I prepared to begin the service, a woman stood up and said that a medicine man had called. He was coming, but was stuck in traffic. Could I wait?
Twenty-five minutes later, a first nations healer walked into the room. He performed a sacred smudging ceremony to open the service. The next 30 minutes included readings from Leonard Cohen and Ecclesiastes, several eulogies, a toast to a friend and the rosary.
Then the funeral director stood up and said he would play the CD of Sanctus and Benedictus conducted by Eugene Stewart and the St. Matthew’s Choir, recorded live at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. I still remember his exact words as he pushed the CD into the slot: “It is my firm belief that every person deserves such a sending off.”
As the music played, this strange and beautiful service came to an end. Then it was off to the cemetery. Because the city was paying, the chosen cemetery was not gated, nor did it look like a manicured golf course. Instead the casket was lowered into swampy ground under a busy overpass. As the rain poured down I recited the sacred words, “We therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, knowing full well that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.”
As I spoke those words I had spoken so many times before, one stuck in my throat: “commit.”
I was 42. What was I committed to? The swamp below me and the multilane motorway above seemed to symbolize the ruts and busyness that can overwhelm a life and confuse a soul like mine. With the funeral music from a president’s mass ringing in my ears, I could hear my late mother’s voice telling me to “seek out those who are sitting alone, make them your friend.”
I am a minister in the United Church, and in my tradition there are specific words to sum up this search: “I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.” Standing in the rain and the mud, as the homeless man’s body was lowered into the ground, I felt as though my eyes were opening.
Within a year, my family and I had left Toronto to return to the Maritimes. My wife had desperately wanted to go home, where our daughter would benefit from living near her extended family. I accepted a call to a suburban church near Halifax.
I wasn’t turning my back on working with those who are poor and disadvantaged. Instead, I have kept the faith by volunteering and working with the marginalized of my hometown, most recently helping the poorest of the poor find services and employment. There are as many who are spiritually lost and in need of guidance in the suburbs as there are in east-end Toronto.
That’s not to say I have never felt lost again. But when I do, I pull out the CD of that funeral mass for President Kennedy that the funeral home director gave me before I left Toronto. And I play it again and again.
Kevin Little lives in Tantallon, N.S.