By: Margaret Tanner
‘Tis the season of Christmas joy and merriment.
Growing up in a rather large extended family, my holidays and milestones were celebrated in grand fashion. Always beginning at church, we gathered for delicious food, storytelling and reminiscing.
This practice extended to family funerals as well. The wakes and funerals of my elderly relatives were invitations to meet second cousins and distant relatives, and revel in our shared history. Funerals reflected our Christmas celebrations. We gathered to remind ourselves of our interconnectedness and familial bonds, to share the gift of our love, but also to share our grief.
I was reminded of this recently when I read a reflection from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. He wrote, “I grew up in a family where death was revered for what it is: a natural part of life, but also a tear in the fabric of a family’s world.”
Chaput’s words ring true. Loss is inevitable, but bereaving families often find the holidays, particularly the first holiday after a death, especially difficult. Surrounded by holiday revelry, an empty chair at a table once filled by a father, mother, brother or sister is a burdensome reminder that this holiday – and the ones to follow – are forever changed.
I relate to this on a personal level. This past fall, my own family faced an unexpected and premature death. The depth of our sorrow has been excruciating. As my family and so many others face this first Christmas without our loved ones, the heartache almost numbs us to the hope of our Savior’s birth. It is in these moments that compassionate gestures can bring light into our darkness.
This is why I have taken particular interest in Harris Funeral Homes' annual Angel Tree tradition.
Harris Funeral Homes is a fifth-generation family business that has served grieving families in the Detroit area for more than 100 years. When a funeral director at Harris Funeral Homes suggested to owner Tom Rost that the funeral home should do something for grieving families during the Christmas season, Tom jumped on board. He worried that the service would not be well received, but so many families came that he made it a yearly tradition.
Twenty years later, the Angel Tree Service is going strong and continues to provide an opportunity for comfort and healing. Typically held the first weekend in December, Harris Funeral Homes provides angel cutout ornaments to each bereaving family it served during the year. Families decorate their angel in honor of their beloved deceased family member.
As the outdoor ceremony begins, each family is called forward to place their angel ornament on a living tree on the grounds at one of the funeral home’s three locations. The service includes a poem or prayer of comfort read aloud. The Angel Tree can be viewed from the road so all passersby glimpse the memorial throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons.
Families are served refreshments and have the chance to spend time with other grieving families. The service is also an opportunity for Tom and the funeral directors to check in personally with each family, to see if they need anything as they continue to grieve. There are even some families who return year after year and have made the Angel Tree service another family tradition.
Tom’s life calling is to help families process their grief. Every aspect of how he runs his business is focused on serving the grieving. Carrying out that mission is what brought him to the U.S. Supreme Court this past fall. You can learn more about his case here.
As Archbishop Chaput, reminds us, “The grave, then, and all of our solemn rituals that surround death and mourning are expressions of reverence and hope.” In the spirit of peace on earth and good will to all, Tom’s example of reaching out to grieving neighbors reminds us of the hope and healing that our Savior’s birth brings.