I went to a funeral last Saturday. Four days before Christmas, the weather was unseasonably mild. This funeral was at the United Methodist Church in the Camp Ground. Karen Berube had died of complications from metastatic breast cancer; she was 63 and fought her illness valiantly and cheerfully until the very last days of her life.
The Methodist pastor Richard Rego officiated, joined by clerics from two other denominations, and as I looked around the fully-packed church, I recognized in the pews clergy folk of several other faiths. And among all the others in attendance, I noticed at least two people I know to be professed atheists. They, like all the rest of us, stood respectfully when directed to do so by Pastor Rego, and they even joined in the singing of hymns and the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer. The service was not billed as being particularly ecumenical, but there we all were, united by nothing more than our friendship with Karen.
Funerals seem to be occurring more frequently on the Vineyard. Or perhaps it’s me, getting older, becoming increasingly more connected with a diverse range of Island people. I have attended funerals in practically every Vineyard house of worship, and have visited nearly a dozen cemeteries for final prayers and interment. All were memorable events, some especially so.
On an icy-cold day several years ago, in a wind-driven rain, I stood among dozens of Islanders-of-all-faiths in the Hebrew Cemetery in Vineyard Haven. It was a sea of umbrellas, just like in the movies, all grays and blacks. There were prayers, of course, in Hebrew, offered by the rabbi, but these were followed by eulogies and remembrances given by friends, most of whom, I recall, were not Jewish.
More recently, on a brilliantly sunny, crisp autumn day, I was among the more than 300 people in attendance in Aquinnah at the funeral for Rick Vanderhoop. The elaborate and inspirational Wampanoag rites were blended with Christian prayers and warm personal words from Rev. Roger Spinney, the Hospice chaplain. The admirable Roger ministers to Islanders of every religion, including those with no religious affiliation whatsoever. We all proceeded — most of us on foot — to the Wampanoag cemetery. It could not have been a more beautiful day nor a more truly emotional ceremony. We held hands, strangers hugging strangers, united not in grief, but in a celebration of life, a celebration which seemed to me to be unique to this place we all inhabit.
We all like to say, “It’s a small Island.” Indeed it is, especially for those of us who live here year-round. Our several circles of acquaintance intersect and overlap. This was illustrated dramatically at this funeral, a microcosm of our multicultural melting pot. While respecting the differences of others, we are all nevertheless joined in community, and the diversity on Martha’s Vineyard is invigorating.
At the American Legion in Vineyard Haven there are framed photographs of World War II veterans, all of them Islanders, comrades with linked arms. Look at the names: Jews, Christians, Native Americans, Irish and Italian Catholics.
A Buddhist monk in saffron robes has joined in prayers at the Hebrew Center and also alongside Father Nagle at Our Lady Star of the Sea.
I frequently attend services at the Unitarian Universalist Society. Some of the regular congregants there identify themselves as “”Jew-U’s” or “U-Bu’s”, and there are more than a few categories of agnostics. Some Unitarian friends of mine go as well to their “own church” from time to time, but they return to worship within “the welcoming community” of the UU.
The Neighborhood Convention meets monthly. It is a gathering of all the houses of worship on the Island, clergy and congregants. Their programs vary, but their discussions are always about matters which concern all Vineyarders, those things which unite us — rarely if ever about issues which divide us.
As I reflect on being present at Karen’s funeral and my thoughts about the enriching experiences of close contact with so many people of differing religious and spiritual views and allegiances, I cannot help but conclude that — at least so far as funerals are concerned — we are all of one religion and that religion is this Island.