It’s a beautiful moment when a family grants one access to the inner sanctum of the deceased’s world, a world shared intimately with special family members, and now shared with me in remembrance.
It’s these initial interviews that give a family an important opportunity to open up and recall, to remember and to re-member, and quite frequently, although we are discussing a dead loved one and the wound is fresh and the pain incisive, we do get to smile and to laugh.
JMP was a matriarch and powerfully loved. JMP collected elephants and when I learned that fact and how many she had collected — more than 2000 of them — and that she and her collection were featured in news articles and interviews, it became quite clear that elephants had great meaning to this family. But how do I work elephants into my homily?
Once you’ve read the homily, you’ll realize that at some point one will have an opportunity to work just about anything into a fitting memorial homily.
Memorial ParaLiturgy for
September 30, 1940– †May 31, 2015
Of Elephants, Matriarchs and Memories
Memorial Homily Delivered by Chaplain Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv
What meaning can we find in a collection of 2000 elephants? Well, we should go beyond the “collection” and look towards the symbolism and meaning hidden under surface, and what it tells us about the life we are celebrating this evening.
Of course, the simplest of meanings is that Joyce liked elephants. But that’s way too simple, because Joyce added meaning to just about everything in her life, including collecting elephants. And her choice of elephants as her animal totem may tell us a lot about Joyce herself, her character, her spirituality.
What’s an animal totem? An animal totem is an important symbolic object used by a person to get in touch with specific qualities found within an animal which the person needs, connects with, or feels a deep affinity toward. Your guide will instruct and protect you as you learn how to navigate through your spiritual and physical life. When you find an animal that speaks strongly to you or feel you must draw more deeply into your life, you might fill your environment with images of the animal to let the animal know it’s welcome in your space. Animal guides can help you get back to your Earthly roots, and reconnect with nature by reminding you that we are all interconnected. Joyce chose the elephant to be her animal totem.
Elephants are “human” animals, encompassed by an invisible aura that reaches deep into the human soul in a mysterious and mystifying way. Elephants are truly dignified, majestic creatures, and are very human in a great many respects. They represent, as I’ve mentioned, dignity, majesty, but also strength, patience, honor. And they’re renowned for their memory. But there’s more, much more. For example, in the Hindu tradition the elephant is represented by Lord Ganesha, an elephant – headed god, who is the god of luck, fortune, protection and is a blessing upon all new projects. Ganesha, in all his magnificently vibrant elephant glory, is intent on bulldozing obstacles on your behalf.
For the Chinese the elephant is a symbol of happiness, good luck, longevity — after all the elephant has a life span similar to human beings, about 70 years, and its development is similar to a human being’s. Some Asian cultures also believe the elephant is a cosmic creature, and carries the world upon it’s back.
Animal symbols and totems are clearly present also in Christian symbolism: the evangelists are represented animal symbols: St Mark by the Lion, St Luke by the Ox, St John by the eagle. Christ is represented by the pelican and the lamb, for example. In Christian symbolism the elephant is an icon of temperance, patience, and loyalty.
When elephants come into our dreams it is a message that we are able to deal with any obstacle we are faced with at this time. Dream elephants represent power, sovereignty, stability, and stead-fastness. If you dream that you are riding an elephant this suggests you have a tendency to be the leader of the family, and others are heavily depending on you.
We gather more symbolic meaning of elephant by observing it in nature. Specifically, the elephant is considered a symbol of responsibility because it takes great care and responsibility of its offspring as well as their elders.
Elephants share with us a strong sense of family and death; they express many of the same emotions, in fact. Each one is a unique individual and has its own personality; They can be happy or sad, volatile or placid. They display envy, jealousy, throw tantrums and are fiercely competitive, and they can develop hang-ups which are reflected in behavior. Sound familiar?
Elephants have voices that communicate beyond human capabilities; their hearing is sensitive and sophisticated, and their memory is far better than ours; it’s legendary.
Elephants grieve for their loved ones, and even shed tears and show signs of depression. But they also have a sense of compassion that goes beyond their own family units, even beyond their own kind and extends to other living things.
Elephants are a matriarchal group. A senior female is the head of the clan and leads it. She is responsible for making the tough decisions in life and considers first and foremost the well – being of her family over and above the needs of anything else. The matriarch is the hub of a complex social network and plays a key role in the survival of the others.
Matriarchs possess a trove of crucial information and have a unique influence over the group. Good matriarch decisions balance the needs of the group, avoiding unnecessary travel while remembering when and where good resources are available. In other words, the matriarch provides a survival advantage for her extended family.
So that’s the here – and – now meaning I find in Joyce’s love of elephants. But let’s move on to a higher level of meaning, the spiritual meaning of Joyce’s elephants, and what it means to our futures.
Our reading from the Gospel of St John opens with the words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” And we have good reason to put our faith in that admonition. That Gospel assures us, whoever we are, that Christ has gone before us to prepare our place in the Father’s house. That house has many rooms, there’s a room for each of us, in all of our individuality and our uniqueness. Our room key is Christ; knowing Christ opens the door to our eternal home. Having a matriarch sure helps in knowing Christ, especially if she is a living example, and leaves us with the lessons of elephant love. Our other readings support this interpretation.
Our readings today describe much of what a matriarch is and does. For example, our reading from the prophet Isaiah teaches us that God’s love will never fail us and that love is “tenderness” and is “enduring”. Isaiah teaches us that God will not be angry with us but offers us peace and mercy. Love never fails us whether it’s God’s, Joyce’s or the love we have for each other. It’s elephant love: strong, compassionate, enduring, patient.
Psalm 121 sings of a God watching over us as if we were travelers on a dangerous journey. Again we can think of our matriarch Joyce and what we can remember of her watching over family and friends. As our spiritual help comes from a God, the maker of heaven and earth, on earth we remember the safety found in Joyce’s presence; we all have seen the images of the elephant mother cuddling her calf or the elephant family encircling a vulnerable member of the family against a threat. The Psalmist teaches that matriarchal protection never “slumbers or sleeps”, it’s our guardian, it guards us “from all evil, it guards “your soul”; it guards “our coming and going”. The Psalm is telling us about God but it also describes our matriarch, Joyce.
In his letter to the Romans, St Paul assures us that if we are led by the Spirit of God, we are children of God, and we can call Him “ABBA”, Father. St Paul teaches us that we are then heirs of God and a joint heir of Christ; as such, we may also be glorified with Him. The key to this reading is that nothing can separate us from God’s love. God’s love is elephant love: true, pure, steadfast, loyal, protecting, nurturing. Think of those words “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor authorities, nor present or future things” will separate us from God’s love. Anguish, distress, grief, persecution, physical deprivation, or persecution will not separate us from God’s love. It’s elephant love in its power and strength. It’s the love Joyce offered to you all and it’s the kind of love you can offer to each other now in these challenging times and for ever. That’s a legacy Joyce leaves with you; it’s the meaning she gave to her life; it’s the lesson she lived for you to learn.
Yes, indeed, from this day forward, every time you pick up one of Joyce’s elephants, every time you see and elephant you should remember the power of God’s love for you, and the way Joyce, your Matriarch, lived that powerful divine love, and how she continues to live in each one of you in that lesson of elephant love that she taught so well by her example.
I hope that from this day forward you’ll never think of elephants in the simple way you did before; I hope that you’ll follow Joyce’s lead and become elephant lovers yourselves.
Click Memorial Homily_JMP to download a copy of this homily in pdf format.