Joel had cleaned out the car, too. Which meant he had taken in to the house the prayerbook I always have stashed in the back of the car. So, as I was picking my way through the old graves, none of them in a line, some outlined with boards, some still with a mound, some collapsed, others decorated with lights, flowers, keepsakes, some graves large, some very small --infant-sized, I was piecing together in my head the parts of the prayers I might know by memory.
Gee, I thought to myself. With as many as funerals as I've done, I should have the whole thing memorized.... Half of me was panicking. What if I open my mouth and nothing comes out... what will I do?
The pall-bearers heaved the casket out of the back of the hearse, and with that lilting stumble and out-stretched arms, they navigated the uneven ground, the waiting pile of dirt, the hole, the 4x4's that rested over the open mouth of the grave to receive the coffin.
And after they pinned their ribbons to the star quilt that rested over the coffin, I began... 'the One who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, will give new life to our mortal bodies through his indwelling Spirit; my heart therefor is glad, my spirit rejoices and my body shall rest in hope... So, in sure and certain hope to the resurrection of eternal life...'
I knew it wasn't all of it... the whole prayer, word for word exactly as it is written... but it was from my heart... word for word... the parts I didn't have to try to remember, the parts that had cleaved to my soul, the parts I held close. The words came from my mouth in little puffs of air that I could see, little clouds of condensation that hovered momentarily in front of my face and then disappeared in to the air... the imagery of God speaking the Word and that Word going forth, to become all, to hold all things in being, even this, here, now....
I was surprised at the depth of the responses... usually no one responds at the graveside, occupied with swallowing grief.... And I completed the prayers with the brief explanation of why we say the Easter proclamation just before the grave is closed... and that is when I heard Joel, standing behind me. His voice. 'Alleluia.'
Joel doesn't often come to the funerals, much less the graveside services... it would be too exhausting for him. He doesn't have that stamina --robbed by that auto-immune disease.... So, it was good to retreat to stand with him. This is always the hard part, watching the coffin be lowered with heavy straps by friends and relatives in to the grave, straining, slipping, maneuvering the mid-air drop slowly and carefully in to the waiting plywood box --the Reservation norm for a vault. Someone has to get in the hole, readjust the star quilt over the coffin, tucking it in. Then the plywood top, lowered by three or four of the pall bearers. The shovels are used as levers to push the sides of the box to conform to the edges of top. The hammer and nails, resounding from the hole --the sound always reminds me of the part of the story where they nail Jesus to the cross. Father, forgive them....
And then the hard work begins. The forty minutes or more to fill the grave, shovel-full by shovel-full. Friends. Nephews. Grandsons. Uncles. The first few shovels of dirt hit the plywood and play it like a drum. The shock of the noise sets some crying. I am always filled with gratitude that the singers at the drum usually begin to sing at this point, farewell songs, honor songs, see you again songs. After about fifteen minutes of earnest work, the men slow down. No matter how cold it is, the sweat always pours.
This time, at about the time the men slow down, there were very few folks remaining at the graveside. It was too cold. Most had slipped away to wait in the cars and trucks. I poked Joel, 'Frost bite only takes 15 minutes, love.' He nodded, but didn't move. His naked ears, naked fingers, naked neck --he wasn't dress to be out here. I poked him again. 'G'wan.' He nodded, and then began to make his way back to the warmth of the car.
The wooden cross, painted with the Four Direction colors, was set at the head. The earth was tamped down around the base shoved deep in to the dirt. More dirt... more dirt. Until, at last, the hole was filled nearly level with the surrounding ground. I moved to mark the corners of the grave with small upright sticks so that there would be reference points to build the mound. More dirt. More dirt. The pall bearers, tired, have to work even harder at this point because the easy and close dirt has already filled the grave. (This is when the joking begins....) The mound is usually formed to a height of about two or three feet... shaped carefully by the grandfather or the person most experienced in grave tending.... then the women come with the flowers, the keepsakes....
I am beginning to really feel the chill --pinpoints of cold stabbing my legs and feet. I turn to the brother, and shake his hand. We talk for a minute --I have buried his father, mother, sister --and now brother.... 'Please tell your husband how grateful I am that he was my brother's friend,' he said. 'Come on by any time,' I said. 'All the guys come by. They don't come to see me. My jokes aren't as funny.' And we laugh. I shake hands with all the pallbearers. Wave goodbye to the funeral director. Make my way back through the graves.
I stop at the place where they had tried to dig a grave for him --but the other graves there, now long without markers, got in the way. So they had to close that hole and begin again. I apologize to the earth for the unnecessary scar; I pray to those whose mortal remains were disturbed --please forgive us. I pray to God that rest may again be theirs. I remember those I have recently buried --here, and there, and there--
I dust off at the car, stripping the heavy outer coat off and shaking it. I brush the dirt off my jeans. I try to imagine that all the prayers we entered in to are still floating in the air, couching, clouding --doing the work that prayers do, known and unknown. In my mind's eye, I tend to the fragile potted plant of my doubt, replanting the words I tripped over today. I tend to it because when it blooms, it is always so fragrant and seemingly bizarre, and leads to new and undiscovered places. In my mind's eye, I dust off my soul, my heart... I can't carry it all... I shouldn't even try....
I turn and look at the two large oak trees that stand guard in the middle of the cemetery, their massive arms cover nearly a third of the cemetery. 'His name always reminded me of the Angel Gabriel,' I say inwardly. I had to tell someone. And from in the car, Joel is talking.... saying, 'You should always do it without a book, love.'
At prayer this morning (Psalm 107:35-43
God changed deserts into pools of water *
and dry land into water-springs.
God settled the hungry there, *
and they founded a city to dwell in.
They sowed fields, and planted vineyards, *
and brought in a fruitful harvest.
God blessed them, so that they increased greatly; *
God did not let their herds decrease.
Yet when they were diminished and brought low, *
through stress of adversity and sorrow,
(God pours contempt on nobles *
and makes them wander in trackless wastes)
God lifted up the poor out of misery *
and multiplied their families like flocks of sheep.
The upright will see this and rejoice, *
but all wickedness will shut its mouth.
Whoever is wise will ponder these things, *
and consider well the mercies of the LORD.
And this (Luke 18:9-14)
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Creator, your days are without end, your mercies unnumbered; make us deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life; lead us by the power of your Holy Spirit in right-living all our days, so that when we shall have served you in our generation, we shall be gathered to our ancestors, having a good conscience, in charity and love with you and our neighbor, and without fear or shame; in Christ's name.