There are certain events that require a “witness”—someone to officially and accurately observe something so that they could tell about it later.
Marriage certificates usually require two witnesses to the ceremony binding two lives and souls (and possessions). Legal cases often depend on witnesses who saw and later testify to what happened (of course, accuracy of memory is often challenged!). In some worship services, when a congregant shares a faith experience, another person may serve as a witness to affirm that experience.
The act of witnessing requires few or no utterances or actions; you don’t have to DO anything, but you have to BE there with undivided attention through eyes or ears or other senses. But aside from the legal ramifications, why does it matter to have a witness? Said another way, what’s the difference between witnessing and “just standing there”?
This question came up awhile back when a clergy friend of mine went to a very small funeral. The family had asked “Sally” to join them for a brief graveside service. She arrived to accompany four family members and the funeral director. She stood close to the quartet as they stared quietly at the small box of ashes on a low table near a dark square hole in the earth, each one holding unspoken feelings and intentions. At one point Sally gently placed her hand on the back of the surviving wife, but said nothing.
After some minutes, when the director asked quietly if they wanted to now place the box into the ground, the family nodded yes. On their knees in the grass, together the four mourners carefully lowered the box about three feet into the receiving soil. They knelt there awhile looking down into the hole, with the director and Sally standing alongside.
Some moments passed and then the family stood and linked arms with tears and sniffles. Gradually their gazes began shifting from downward to outward. When she was ready, the wife inhaled deeply and turned away from the still-open grave. The other three followed suit and everyone slowly walked toward the cars; the director remained at graveside.
Sally asked if there was anything else she could do. The spouse shook her head and then finally spoke her first words of the occasion, “Thank you, thank you; that was what we needed. We will take it from here.” And with that, everyone departed.
What had happened? What did it mean to have a witness to a family’s ritual of goodbye?
While the director was there to facilitate — to DO, Sally was requested to participate — to BE. Far more than “just stand there,” she was a witness. No words were used; in fact, they would have likely hampered the power of silent ceremony.
We can’t know what it meant to the family, save for their gratitude. Yet I firmly believe Sally’s witness provided a sacred, meaningful blessing far deeper than words or feelings. Her witness consecrated a rite of mourning that breathed new spiritual life into a small sorrowing family.