Words for the Memorial Service for Jeffrey Cranson, who left this earth too soon
Delivered April 2, 2016
by the Reverend Robin Bartlett at First Church in Sterling, MA
Good morning, beloved. Welcome to First Church in Sterling, which is made sacred in this season of loss with the spirit of love and friendship that you bring as you gather to remember Jeffrey Cranson. You come together as family, friends, neighbors—co-creators of a community that includes those present and also family and friends who could not be here today, but who are with us in spirit.
We come together that we may honor Jeff in our hearts, and hold him dear in our memory. Gordon Atkinson says that we live in the transition between the future and the past. We are the moment that hope becomes memory. In this moment, this razor sharp moment when hope has become memory, let us tell a good and true story about who Jeffrey Cranson was. Let us give him life again in our memories of him. Let us recreate him like clay in our hands.
We do this work of memory together in a church, led by a Christian pastor with the trappings of Christianity and its symbols. We know that Jeffrey and his family weren’t big “church people.” When I first met Maureen, I liked her immediately, and told her I wanted her in my church. She said, “Robin, if I walk into that church, it will probably collapse, and I like you too much to allow that to happen.”
And yet, Jeffrey was profoundly spiritual, having relied on his “higher power”, like the lightbulb in a dark room, to guide him through recovery. Jeffrey’s Sunday morning practice was to listen to music and make pancakes with his fiancé, Alex. She joked to me that they “prayed while they did that, though.” I believed her. “Really? You prayed while you made pancakes?” I think I believed her because it was so clear to me that their five years together were as sacred as any carefully crafted prayer.
Regardless of whether Jeff identified as a Christian, it is still fitting that we honor Jeffrey here in this place, at this time of year. This is his town church, on the beloved Sterling town green, where he was in the first graduating class of the Village Green preschool down the hall. His classmates and Jeff are still friends, because Jeff collected friends and never let them go.
And this is the season of Easter in the Christian Church, which is the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Giles Frasier says: “The resurrection is not an argument, still less a philosophical argument. That’s why rational skepticism about the empty tomb just bounces off the surface….Resurrection is who we are – our word for how we go on in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s the Christian term for defiance…This Easter rising is not just some fancy intellectual idea, it’s a form of praxis.”
We need that defiance now, as we seek to go on in the face of the overwhelming, impossible, almost drowning grief.
We need an Easter rising today in defiance, and as a form of praxis. Our practice is making memory, and making meaning of those memories. That is how we raise the dead together.
And so we raise Jeffrey up in our story and song, in our prayer, in our tears, in our laughter. We raise him from the dead by remembering him as so very much alive. That is how we defy death; with life. That is how we practice resurrection; by pointing to the ways in which Jeffrey’s love will be carried on in all of us—in our bodies, in our hearts, in our actions. That is how we turn the shadow of grief into the shimmering light of hope.
Today we must grieve Jeff’s death. But this service must also be a celebration of Jeff, and his remarkable life. Though our grief is strong and we must mourn, we will not let the shadow of death obscure the living person who touched us many times, in many ways, filling our lives with memories, meaning and love.
Jeffrey Edwin Cranson, was known by many and loved by all. An avid outdoorsman and traveler, Jeff was always one to share in a laugh, pass along a kind word, or listen with compassion. Born in Leominster, MA on March 16, 1977, Jeff graduated from Wachusett High School and then Worcester State University.
I didn’t know Jeff, but I know his family, and one need only know his family to know Jeff. He was a total Sterling guy, and yet he traveled the world. He adored the outdoors, and there was no place like home. And he made every place a home. He made friends every single corner of the world he went. He was adventurous enough to move to Alaska, and yet responsible enough to care for his grandmother until she died.
He was imperfect, but impossible to stay mad at. As his mama said, “he was a friggin’ charmer.” He was the pied piper of children; his nieces’ and nephews’ favorite person. He was the middle child sandwiched between two strong women, beloved by both his older sister, Kristen, and his younger sister Sarah. There are no words.
Jeff was a survivor. Sober for eight years, Jeff didn’t want to take the pain control drugs in the hospital for fear he would slip back into addiction. Jeff was hilarious. I read on the internet yesterday in a blog post by one of his one million friends that he had a cat named Dirty Snow Pile. OMG. That’s the best name for a cat I’ve ever heard.
Jeff was adored by his parents, Don and Maureen, who didn’t just love him, they liked him. They are good parents, real parents. They loved him from before he was born, when he was knit in his mother’s womb by a love beyond all knowing. And they adored him for the 39 precious years he inhabited this earth. He was their son, their buddy, their light, their connector. He remains knit into the fabric of their hearts. He learned from them how to be better, and they learned from him how to be better.
Jeffrey cared for people with great passion and compassion. He was always worried about other people, even, and maybe most especially when he neared death. His dad, Don, got the stomach flu while he was in the hospital, and Jeff called him at home, concerned about his dad’s illness. Kristen, Jeff’s older sister, writes in his Caring Bridge journal: “When (my mom) asked what he was doing, he said, "calling Dad to see how he is doing." It is truly amazing when you hear his voice, when he finds his words and you remember the sound of his love. My dad's phone rang in Sterling and was overjoyed to hear Jeffs' voice. Dad says he was able to understand most of the conversation and it filled him up. It's moments like this that brings back faith and hope.”
Jeff loved you all so much. The family wants you to know that. And he would cry every day—which was tremendously out of character—at the thought of seeing or talking to you for fear you would worry about him. He wanted to take care of all of you.
Kristen writes: “We are all so angry. Trying to put our anger in place to fight this unfair battle with cancer is the worst. But it's funny how Jeff will never change. Always taking care of the room. Making sure we are all okay. Holding our hands and pushing through awfulness to comfort us. We try to convince him that's not his job, but he is who he is. A couple of Jeffs' friends called the front desk to ask about visiting and the nurse asked us to take the call. My mom marched out to the desk to tell them, 'No guests. He needs his rest and all germs are our enemy right now', but Jeff motioned to Sarah to tell her, 'NO! Find out who it is first.' He loves his people and there are so many of them! He has people from every minute of his adventurous life wanting to help.”
That was Jeff. He listened, he reassured. He was gentle and non-judgmental. He made you believe you could do anything. “Everyone had a piece of his love,” his mom says. He made every person feel like they were the only one in the world—you were his best and favorite friend, his best and favorite niece, his best and favorite nephew, his best and favorite cousin, his best and favorite uncle or aunt, his best and favorite sister.
He did have a best and favorite girl, and her name is Alex. Maureen, his mama--and previously his best and favorite girl before Alex came along--said: “He lit up whenever she entered the room. It pissed me off! And it made me happy, because he really loved Alex.” Alex and Jeff didn’t just have true love, they had real love. Jeff helped Alex be better. He used to tell her that if something felt like the right thing, it was the right thing, and encourage her to take risks for her happiness. And Alex helped Jeff be better. Alex and Jeff have been engaged for years, and were finally ready to get married. Alex told Jeff he needed to complete five things to marry her, and he was proud that he had recently completed all four:
He finally finished the last step right before he got sick. Alex regrets this now because they never got to have their wedding ceremony, but he was so proud of these accomplishments. She gave him that gift. This was the real process of wed-ding; this work they did together to build a life of love and mutual support. The ceremony is only the formal icing on the cake, and who needs it.
You all, when I met with this Cranson family--this remarkable, loving and real family who I adore and I know you do, too-- Kristen and Alex told me something I think has resonant truth for all of us, particularly those of us who have known grief. They had been in Seattle, having just learned that Jeffrey was diagnosed with this ravaging disease and the prognosis was not good, and they were with him in the hospital. And they ran out of underwear. So they went out to Target to get more.
And Kristen said, “I walked into Target, and I could not believe that the world was just going on. That people were just rolling their carts around Target. That people were just buying LAMPS on a day like this. It made me so angry.”
And Alex said, “I can’t even imagine a day when I will be able to go into Target and buy a lamp.”
The world has stopped turning, and people are just going about their normal business. The morning Jeffrey died wind whipped through the trees; wind howled God’s cries of mourning. And then, just a few hours later the most beautiful sunrise. The day was kissed with spring’s new light and everyone was bustling about outside, their faces to the sun. They didn’t seem to know that the world had ended.
And make no mistake: this family’s world has ended. Kristen describes it this way: "We lost our connecting piece. The sound of love and logic from our brother, son, fiancé, best friend.... we are so sad. It's a deep, empty, dark feeling that just sits on your chest and you can't breathe."
And here’s the thing that this grieving, beloved, shaken family also knows besides the agonizing feeling of mourning: Jeffrey would have wanted their worlds to begin again. He would have wanted that empty dark feeling of grief lifted from their chests. He would have wanted all of you to practice resurrection, to roll away the stone of grief and get up out of your tombs. He would have wanted all of you to keep moving out into the day, turning your faces to the sun. He would have wanted you to care for his nieces and nephews he adored, to go back to work, to play hard, to buy lamps at Target, to love again, to love one another as fiercely as he loved all of you.
We must grieve this impossible grief: of a life that is over far too soon following a death that was painful, devastating and cruel, by a disease that steals the life of so many, indiscriminantly and with no mercy. And for those reasons, we must grieve well and long, because our tears are holy: a testament to how much Jeff was truly and deeply loved; a testament to how unfair his suffering was, and that the world now has to go on without him in it.
But we cannot let death overshadow the life of Jeffrey Cranson, and the impact he had on all of our lives. Jeffrey practiced resurrection: he died to old ways of living, only to create new ones. He made every person feel like they were Beloved, which is God’s work. He was a living example of what it means to honor the spark of the divine in each and every person he met. We must honor Jeffrey by living as he lived—with passion and compassion, kindness and humor, care for the suffering, with great adventure and great fun. We must check in on the children, call the sick, and listen to one another without judgement. We must affirm for Jeff that death does not have the final word. Life does.
Jeff knows you all don’t belong in a tomb; you belong among the living. In my heavenly imagination, Jeff is singing to you all as a gentle reminder and reassurance: “You belong among the wild flowers, you belong on a boat out at sea, sail away, kill all the hours, you belong somewhere you feel free.”
Dear God who is eternal and ever lasting Love:
In this lonely time of grief over the shocking and breath-stealing death of our friend, Jeff
We look to you for peace and assurance that the world will still spin, and we will still go on, despite the hole that the death of our son, brother, nephew, uncle, cousin, fiancé, friend, leaves in our lives and in our hearts.
Comfort those who mourn today,
Most especially the family of Jeffrey Cranson
his mother, Maureen Cranson & Robert Decker; his father, Donald Cranson & Cynthia Collard; his fiancé Alexandria N. Najduch; his sisters Sarah Marrone (Cranson) & her husband Edward; Kristen Nelson (Cranson) & her husband Erik; nieces and nephews Kylie, Sydnie, Allie, Luke and Caden; many aunts and uncles, cousins.
Help them to know that we hold each other, and that we hold each other up. When they feel like they can’t breathe, we will breathe for them. If they need help when it is time to roll away the stone of mourning, we will help them kick it away, and help them turn their faces toward the sun.
O God, who brought us to birth,
And in whose arms we die,
In our grief and sadness and shock,
Contain and comfort us;
Embrace us with your love,
Give us hope
And grace to let go into new life.
We pray all this for love’s sake.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.