I’ve been to two funerals in the last two weeks.
The first was at my current church for a woman who had been a member there for many years, perhaps her whole life. There was much family there. Children and grandchildren. She had lived a long life, ending it with a few years of Alzheimer’s based confusion. When Pastor talked about the resurrection and her passing on to life with Jesus one could dream of a woman restored to herself, freed from her confused prison, looking down on the world. And there was joy in that.
I didn’t know that woman. I barely even knew her family. I was at the funeral because I was asked to sing with our choir which is sparse even in its best moments. I parked a half a block from the church to give space for those who can’t walk as far as I can. I wandered up to the church a bit early dressed in dark casual clothes that would be covered with a choir robe for the service. Even though I was early there were people there. The body was displayed at the front of the church for viewing. People moved around with gentle purpose.
By the time the funeral started it was a packed house. As people stood at the pulpit and spoke of her I got a sense of a woman who had been a treasured friend and a motherly refuge. A musical gift to the world. It sounded as if she had been placed wonderfully in this world to add pleasure to the people around her. I found myself crying at the thought of the obvious loss. Even though they had been losing her for some time already, this was when it was recognized and given its due.
Yesterday’s funeral was at the church where I was married over thirteen years ago. The funeral was for a 32 year old boy. I say boy because that was the feel of it. There was much family there, brother and sisters, mother, cousins, and so many others. He had lived a short life and ending in a moment in Iraq.
I didn’t know the boy. At one time I had been close to his brother and his sister. Time and circumstance had let us drift from those friendships but this event brought those times back in sharp relief. We parked blocks from the church as we saw other old friends do. I struggled to get out of the car in my unfamiliar heels and long black skirt. We started the walk to the church and for the first time noticed the police blockades. The church parking lot didn’t have a car in it. A hearse, vans, and motorcycles took up about one fourth of the space and the rest was empty, cordoned off but for a medium sized tent set up off to one side. Police officers stood in clumps expecting trouble but ready for it. Near the door of the church was a line three deep of patriot guards. They were dressed in motorcycle leather with sewn on patches, a variety of slogans, vet, pow-mia, patriot guard… They held flags that prevented us from seeing across the street. The spoke the Pledge of Allegiance in unison to fill our ears. There were protestors somewhere but the guard kept us shielded from them. I was glad for my sunglasses because overwhelmed tears were gathering and I hadn’t yet made it into the church.
At the door were two ushers that I knew from my years at that church. We hugged and it was a surreal coming home feeling. The buzz of the pledge of allegiance was our constant companion as we spoke quietly of mutual friends and then moved further into the church. More familiar faces there to greet us. Faces that had aged but still held warmth for us. We signed a guest book and spoke to another friend. Outside the plate glass windows the patriot guard held their flags, their lips moving but I could no longer hear the words of the pledge.
The Pastor, the one who married us, who baptized our first child, came and hugged us. More old friends and then the family we had come to see. My mother has always said that funerals were about the living not about the dead and today I knew it to be true as I hugged my friends. We stood in the narthex for a while talking and not talking.
We entered the church to see more familiar faces, ten years collapsed in a moment with more muted greetings as we took our seats.
The service stretched out, wavering in time, endless and short all at once. Tears came and dried, songs were sung and forced out. When Pastor spoke about resurrection and this boy passing on to life with Jesus one could hardly avoid thinking that the boy had died at the age of Christ. So young, was he really ready for heaven? It was hard to muster up the joy. But I learned about the brother that my friends had lost and I struggled to reconcile my pacifism with my patriotism. He had wanted to be there in Iraq, that much was made clear. There had been no mistake, enlisting after the war had started, a good ten years older than anyone else in his unit, he wanted to be there. And yet he wasn’t what I had imagined, he was described as an adventurous yet thoughtful man who saw beauty in every part of life and whose actions clearly communicated his beliefs. He seemed to be perfectly placed in this world and the hole that his absence will leave, a raw gaping place.
Medals were awarded, tributes spoken, blessings made, communion fed, and then we were back outside, moving through a corridor of utterly respectful Patriot Guards to the medium sized white tent. Beyond the leather clad human corridor was TV cameras, reporters, curiosity seekers on the roofs of buildings, all staring down at us. Without sunglasses this time I walked with tears on my face. Twenty-one gunshots fired, flags folded and presented, uniformed men and women with slow motion salutes and then it was done. The police left in groups, the patriot guard left with a Harley type roar, and we left with isolated footsteps shivering in the now cold afternoon.
A man, A boy, A son, A brother, An Uncle, A friend who had given his life for his country, over and done now.
It would be sentimental to say that when I came home much later I woke my children one by one to hug them, my sons a little longer. But it is true. I did. No mother should outlast her children. I’m not the first to say it or lament it. But it is true. Only the good die young. True enough also.
Two funerals in two weeks.
Lives changed and yet the same.
It’s morning again and the day doesn’t wait for me, for the families, or for the dead.