In the Jan. 28 edition of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul’s newsletter, "Nautilus News," Dean Amy McCreath extended an invitation to join the cathedral for a live-streamed Ash Wednesday service at noon, when there will be the blessing of a memorial book into which the names of friends, loved ones and congregants from around the diocese who have died of COVID-19 will be inscribed.
“We do this both with sure and certain hope in the Resurrection and as people who follow [our Saviour] who wept at his friend's death, who did not turn away from the reality of suffering and who is always present in the hardest, longest nights,” McCreath wrote in the newsletter.
Byron Rushing of the Diocese of Massachusetts, who is the vice president of the Episcopal Church General Convention's House of Deputies, inspired her to create the memorial book, McCreath said in a joint phone interview with Rushing and Jep Streit, the former dean of the cathedral. The book is based on an AIDS memorial book that the cathedral began--along with AIDS memorial services--in 1985.
“I thought, we should prepare to memorialize these people who are dying,” Rushing said. “When you talk about this to Episcopalians, lots of them remember AIDS memorials. I’m suggesting that we do something comparable to the AIDS [memorial] so there is an actual thing, so when people go back to church, there will be something that they will see.”
The cathedral’s AIDS memorial services in the 1980s eventually inspired other Episcopal congregations to begin their own memorial and healing services, and many of those services became ecumenical and even interfaith. It felt important for the cathedral to again serve as an example for others as the wider community goes through a process of grieving together, McCreath said.
“I’m really thankful that Byron called me and waved the flag around this, because I think a cathedral is meant to signify what our mission is, the mission that we share, the mission that the bishop oversees, that all of us participate in,” McCreath said. “It’s very easy for us to get caught up in articulating all of the stuff that we’re going to do--and it’s important stuff--but part of our mission right now is to lament. Part of mission is to mourn, and that is something that, as the church, we want to do ourselves and invite the world to participate in.”
Streit, who served as dean of the cathedral from 1995 to 2017, recalled, in the interview, his first fall season as dean, which was also the 10th anniversary of the start of the cathedral’s AIDS memorials. He compared those to COVID-19 memorials now--such as the cathedral’s memorial book and the Washington, D.C., memorial held the night before the inauguration of President Joe Biden. He said that to recognize the enormity of the loss and then lift it up is a kind of prophetic judgement.
“I was really aware how incredibly moving it was the night before the inauguration--that memorial service with the lights--it made me weep,” Streit said. “Just to notice and to lift that up is profound. In that sense, it’s both pastoral to those that have been lost, but it’s also prophetic. I think that was part of what prompted the AIDS memorial, but also the healing services that began in 1985. For the church to say, and particularly the cathedral to say, ‘We’re going to have services to welcome people and pray for people affected by AIDS, which is to say, all of us.’”
Streit said he feels some similarities now during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Yes, we’ve all been staggered by this, and we can’t pretend otherwise. We need to acknowledge that. Once that happens, then you can begin to see the intersectionality," he said, referring to how the pandemic is disproportionately affecting people of color.
McCreath also spoke about racism as one of the “overlapping pandemics” plaguing the country.
“A lot of people have talked about overlapping pandemics, and there’s just so much,” McCreath said. “The enormity of the pandemic of racism. The enormity of political disaster. Which of these disasters do you sit in the ashes with? It feels like the Episcopal Church has started to do a lot of sitting in the ashes and sitting with the disaster of racism. It’s harder to do that with politics because people approach it from different places, and it’s harder to do that with COVID because there is a sense of our own failure to make meaning of that. Disease and certainly a pandemic, I think, confronts us with our fear of the meaningless of it.”
“While we do pray for the dead, we don’t often talk about death,” McCreath continued. “We don’t prepare well for 'after.' We pray for those who are sick with COVID, but we haven’t really sat and lamented together. We haven’t really sat with the enormity of it, with the sheerness of it.”
At the core is our search as humans, and especially as people of faith, to find meaning and purpose in death. As an example, Rushing contrasted the loss of life that comes from planned warfare to this sudden loss of life caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you declare war, you know people are going to die, so you’re prepared for the death,” Rushing said. “There was none of that here. We didn’t know exactly what [COVID-19] would be, but we weren’t prepared for it.”
The cathedral’s COVID-19 memorial book is an effort to help make meaning of the many lives that COVID-19 has taken, and to give people a chance to begin healing. The book isn’t just about recording the names of Episcopalians who have died; all are welcome to be included, and the cathedral plans to open the memorial on Ash Wednesday, and continue to pray the names of those in the book at its Friday Compline service each week.
“Compline feels right to me because it’s about acknowledging the end of the day and doing that with the promise of the dawn, with the promise of the new day,” McCreath said. “It’s a good time to sort of tally and feel our feelings of loss, but then also to do that as Christians who anticipate the dawn.”
--Bridget K. Wood
All are invited to send names to be included in the cathedral’s COVID-19 memorial book to email@example.com.