Wednesday, February 11, 2004

...even at the grave...

On Sunday, the local funeral home called. The woman on the other end had a family sitting with her who was requesting that their father be given a burial from our parish. After a few minutes it dawned on me that the family was listening to her side of the conversation, which explained the vague answers to my questions regarding the connection the family had with the parish. What I did learn was that their mother's burial had been from this parish four years ago. Of course Wednesday at 11:00 would be fine. I was then asked what my "fee" would be. I attempted to explain that the Church did not charge "fees," but a gift to the parish would be greatly appreciated, although not essential. Regardless, the request for a Christian burial would be honored. This was met with silence. As I waited for the next question, the thought crossed my mind that either I had just encountered another peculiarity of New Jersey etiquette, or the person on the other end of the phone was quite new to her position.

Later, I called one of the daughters. Among other things, we discussed the particulars of the liturgy. She asked that her brother be allowed to give "the eulogy." I agreed to her brother "offering a few words." She then informed me that another brother might want to say a few words, and that this brother was in a mental hospital, but not to worry, as she would have someone standing next to him the whole time in case he did anything "unusual." Needless to say, I now became quite worried, imagining a variety of bizarre scenarios unfolding . I began to wonder if I might want to clip my cell phone to my belt under the alb, just in case a call to 911 might be required.

I arranged things with the altar guild. No one was free to assist me, which was not a problem, as I anticipated a small family gathering. When they began to arrive, I soon realized that I had anticipated erroneously. It appears that this man had nine children, and 22 grandchildren. By the time 11:00 rolled around, the church was full.

One of the daughters asked me to not begin until her brother arrived from the mental hospital. He arrived about 11:15, in handcuffs, escorted by two police officers. Another rather large brother quickly ushered the officers back out the door, and began to loudly argue tthe necessity for the cuffs. The officers appear to have won the argument. They followed the son of the deceased to a pew, and then took their positions at the end of the pew, where they remained standing for the entire liturgy. I said not a word, other than to greet the cuffed son, who, although quite large, was also heavily medicated, and so probably harmless enough. The officers did not carry side arms, which I would have objected to, although they did have a number of goodies strapped to their belt, which I assumed included mase and other tools of their trade.

The "eulogy," given by the largest of the brothers, spoke of his father's drinking, gambling and numerous fights. These memories were offered of his life before the age 16. I'll not go into the details of the remaining 58 years of memories, except to say that the phrase "man of passion" was used quite often. Note to self; go back to the practice of reviewing ALL "eulogies" before allowing them to be offered in a service of public worship.

When he was done, I asked if there would be another speaker. He shook his head no. The manicled brother would not be offering his particular interpretation of his father's life. I offered a few words about death and resurrection, attempting a transition from who their father had been to the reality of the moment; that he was in the nearer presence of our Lord. Having heard the eulogy, it is a good thing that I error on the side of liberality, as in my more conservative days, I would have had serious reservations regarding this man's eternal destination.

Since I had anticipated a small group, I had no chalice bearer. Almost everyone came forward for communion. This required that I make two trips around for each group at the altar rail; one for the bread and one for the wine. Administering the sacrament took at least 20 minutes, during which the conversation in the pews continued to increase in volume. To give credit where it is due, when I finally shouted, "Let us pray," there was complete silence.

I rode to the cemetary with the funeral director, who used the time to tell me every "pearly gates" joke that he knew. It was a cold day, and as I waited for all 150 of the family to assemble at the grave, I greatly appreciated the wool cloak I found hidden in a side closet of the parish. It is a beautiful garment, with a quite striking clasp, that had obviously not seen the light of day for many years.

At the appropriate time, I "cast earth upon the coffin." In this case, the earth consisted of a number of small pebbles, as the ground is quite damp here still. As the people left, a number of them reached over and took one of the pebbles as a keepsake. If I would have known, I would have cast more.

The funeral director drove me back to the parish. When we arrived, he pulled out a deck of cards, and proceeded to show me a few of his favorite card tricks. Some of them were quite good, although the vision of me sitting in a hearse wearing cassock, surplice, stole and cloak dealing cards with a man in a dark suit was more than I imagined some of the parishioners should be forced to endure. As soon as common courtesy allowed, I excused myself and escaped to the sanctity of the office.

The above rendition may sound like I found this experience quite annoying. To correct that misconception, I must admit that a smile has been pulling at the corner of my mouth the entire time I have been writing these words; a smile drawn from the experience that, even in life's rather unusual situations, God is there, moving with us, sharing our tears and our laughter.

God is good, all the time.

All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.