114,625. . . the official CDC count of COVID-19 deaths as of June 13, 2020. Half the population of Winston-Salem, NC. Mothers, fathers, spouses, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, sisters, brothers, cousins, grandparents, friends, strangers.
Our grief is cumulative and unresolved. We suffer survivor’s guilt. We look for others to blame. We feel too much – deep sadness, righteous anger, crippling anxiety. We feel nothing – numb and disconnected from our deepest selves.
So much is unknown, unfathomable, unfamiliar. We struggle to make meaning from what is happening. We are overwhelmed by the virus itself, the conflicting information coming at us, and the demands on our time and energy.
An uncertain future stretches out ahead of us. The overlay of unrest and heartbreak following the killing of George Floyd and years of oppression and systemic racism adds, for many of us, an uncomfortable complexity to this already unprecedented season of losses.
And, our inability to physically gather together to remember and honor those we have lost makes these losses even more difficult.
Why did I go through this litany of bleakness? Frankly, it’s important to name and acknowledge our losses before we can begin to process them. And, it’s important to recognize that our faith rituals offer comfort and strength even if we cannot share them in person.
While persecution, exile, disease, and early death ravaged and terrified many of their day, our early Moravian brothers and sisters found opportunity and even beauty in life’s hardships. In particular, our 18th-century Moravian ancestors were part of closely-bound communities that sanctified all of life, including death. Moravians lived in community, worked in community, worshipped in community, and died in community. These Moravians embraced death as the final union with Christ whose death made their salvation possible.
This video honors those lost to COVID-19 and offers comfort to their loved ones, using the words of the Memorial and Burial Service liturgy from the Moravian Book of Worship. Nine Moravians recorded their parts from locations in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Canada, representing the geographical diversity of this small Protestant denomination that continues to share faith, love, and hope with the world today.
The language of this liturgy grounds us in God’s presence, in the assurance given by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Following a prayer of acceptance, believers are assured no condemnation or judgment, thus one less concern while mourning the loss of a loved one. The liturgy paints a vivid picture of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and describes, with beautiful masculine and feminine imagery, the comfort that God offers us in our time of loss.
Moravian funeral chorales offered by brass bands of believers during memorial services can be heard in the background of the memorial video. The first one is Sleep Thy Last Sleep, normally played at the graveside of Moravian ministers and musicians. The words are powerful:
Sleep thy last sleep, free from care and sorrow;
rest, where none weep, till the eternal morrow;
though dark waves roll o’er the silent river,
thy fainting soul Jesus can deliver.
Especially in these days, being “free from care and sorrow” and “rest[ing] where none weep” comfort us, but also challenge us as followers of Christ to work for a world free from care and sorrow, a world where people can rest and not weep.
So, God is with us.
We have each other.
Together, with God, we strive for a better world.
We hope this simple tribute provides comfort and peace in the midst of all of this suffering and sorrow.
“O God of grace and mercy, our souls sing hallelujah, praise, and thanksgiving for your greatness. Your grace continually abounds even in the midst of our darkest moments. Thank you for your prevailing spirit indwelling and comforting us. In the name of our lamb who has conquered. Amen.” (Prayer from the Moravian Daily Texts, June 9, 2020)
- Cases in the US
- US Census Bureau QuickFacts: Winston-Salem city, North Carolina
- Atwood, Craig. “The Joyfulness of Death in Eighteenth-Centuray Moravian Communal Societies.” Journal of Communal Studies Association, vol. 17, no. , 1997, pp. 39–58.
Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Riddick Weber for his insights into the language and music of the liturgy and to the Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood for sharing his article about Moravians and death.