Funeral lunches heal hurting souls
In a carefully kept black notebook, the details of many years of St. Paul funeral lunches are detailed by hand. By year and name, notes about the meal served and the number of people who attended offer a physical reminder of a faith tradition that spans centuries, religions, and crosses borders.
The people in that book are the saints of this place – young and old, rich and poor, people who always sat in the same place each Sunday and people who came a few times a year. In the end, their family and friends gather here for a visitation, a funeral, and then a luncheon.
The menus vary, and the caterers do too, but the hope is the same: a time to tell a few stories, share a few more laughs and tears, and just simply be together.
“The purpose is gathering,” said Joyce Holland, who along with Jolene Mullins, leads the luncheon crews, with the help of people like Karen Miller. “It’s a good way to connect.”
In 2017, St. Paul hosted 17 funeral lunches. Joyce likens the funeral crew – which does include men – to the church basement ladies of her childhood. “My father was a funeral director, and my mom was the energizer church woman. If I have my dad’s gentleness and my mom’s enthusiasm, that’s what I want to put into this service.”
“It’s a good way to let people know we care about them,” Karen said.
Early in the morning on the day of a luncheon, St. Paul staff member Matt Spencer sets up round tables in the Library Commons. A crew of volunteers comes a bit later on, placing tablecloths, centerpieces, and prayer cards on each table. As food arrives, they get it in place, then await the end of the funeral. Sometimes, they have a moment to look at the photos and mementos on display and if they didn’t know the person, learn a little bit about them. As family and friends filter into the Library Commons, the crew begins pouring coffee and water, helping with plates, and offering kind words and sympathies.
At the end, the crew cleans up and boxes up the leftovers, which then go with the family or to a domestic violence shelter.
The volunteers come from all walks of life. Many are retired and have free time during the day.
Jan Bush began serving at luncheons once she retired from teaching. “I talked with Joyce Holland, and went on the list – that’s as simple as it was.”
“It’s a nice way to comfort people,” Jan said. “You’re a quiet presence on a tough day.”
The Library Commons is a warm, inviting space, Jan said, for what often becomes a generational time of sharing, of taking photographs, of reminiscing. Sometimes, items served at the luncheons offer a personal touch, crew members said, such as popcorn, cookies, and chicken nuggets. Menus are most commonly things like sandwiches, or fried chicken.
Dick Riddell, a member of the crew, likened funeral lunches to family or high school reunions. “You hear a lot of good stories,” he said. “It’s not work at all. People appreciate it so much.”