I was particularly struck this morning by something that has never occurred to me before. It has always been my practice to walk in front of the casket all the way out of the church, not stopping at the door and letting the pallbearers go it alone from there, but leading down to the sidewalk and standing by until the door is closed on the hearse. No one ever told me or taught me to do it. It just seems right intuitively.
This is one of those moments of priest-as-shaman. Please, I'm not trying to incite a cyber-riot by suggesting a parallel between pagan and Christian "priestcraft," but ... well ... there's a parallel between Christian priestcraft in this context and what we might call "generic" priestcraft. When I lead the casket all the way out to the hearse, I am exercising priesthood for the sake of the deceased. I am in that moment no longer a teacher, or an evangelist, or a community leader, or a care-giver, and not simply a presbyter in the technical Christian sense. I am a priest, conducting a soul out of this world and through the portal to what comes next. My responsibility during those few steps is not to the grieving family, or other parishioners and non-parishioners present, but to the deceased, represented by his body. When the door of the hearse shuts, then I stand relieved, and turn my pastoral attention once again to the living. The Communion of Saints waves hello to me. "See you again soon," they say, as indeed they will. And someday I'll be the one that another priest escorts to that point and then hands me off to them. So this is good practice.