by C. Richard Patton
I stalled my arrival. The little church in the Alabama countryside, the church that ended up being so much bigger on the inside than it appeared from the outside, would be full of mourners, and I was not anxious to join them. Steady rain fell out of a gray and windless sky. The air hung at sixty degrees at an hour past noon. I don’t funeral much, thankfully, so I have little practice with funerary apparel. I stopped my Subaru at the Jet-Pep gas station, within sight of the church, to knot my tie and switch to my black shoes. It took longer than it might have were I more accustomed to neckties and non-athletic footwear, and if my fifty-six-year-old joints would bend more readily within the front seat of my car. But as I said, I was in no hurry to get there.
Pulling up the church driveway, I saw the parking lot was overflowing and relaxed somewhat. I knew I could remain on the periphery in a crowd this size. What I didn’t realize was that the challenge would be to be seen, when the time came.
I entered through the wrong door because I walked as directly away from the already dug and tent-covered graves on the far side of the parking lot as I could. I would have chosen to park less close to the piled dirt and rowed folding chairs but I was directed by the abundance of first responders, former colleagues of the dead wife, and those were the spots remaining as the big hand on my digital watch tipped nearly vertical. I’d be late by the time I walked in. It wasn’t really a wrong door, but it was the Sunday school door. A kindly gentleman inside directed me down a long hall to the worship center. I thanked him and welcomed the additional delay.
I chose the leftmost entrance to the worship center, following my best Disney World crowd avoidance instincts, and walked in behind another late arrival. Up front a man stood alone, singing, more on stage than at an altar, but the high-vaulted, wood-beamed ceiling and large cross behind him left no doubt that this was the interior of a church. I found a seat toward the rear. The pews were cleverly arranged in very wide rows so even here in the back we were no more than a dozen rows removed from the vocalist. I sat next to a young couple. Had they ridden her school bus in years past? It was the only vacant section of bench near me and I realized that not only was this a bigger church than I’d thought, it was comfortably full of people.
Grayed at the temples to match his suit, he was an older man, the one singing, which is to say he was at least as old as me, somewhere north of fifty-five and south of actually old. Caucasian, also like me. I looked around and saw that most everyone here was white, though there was no sense of segregation, just the way it was. The singer’s shoulders were rounded slightly, giving his suit an ill fit. He wasn’t the man of similar age with similar hair color but a better-fitting suit, and sporting one dangling earring, that I would see later at the graveside. I still wonder just who the earring man was. The singer had a clear voice and the music of it flowed despite the lack of accompaniment. What’s that in the lyric? “Beulah Land… home shall be eternal….” It was unknown to me, yet appropriate. Of course it would be. As I said, I don’t funeral much. I suspect it’s a standard, but so is “Amazing Grace” in its place, and that one never fails to move me. If someone sings that one here, as deftly as this one is being performed, I might weep. The support here is welling up inside me.
The officiant, a second man, a bit younger and quite a bit heavier, and with the well-groomed pallor of conservative preachers throughout the country, welcomed us next. As he said opening remarks and a prayer, I counted the people in my pew. After the “Amen” I judged the person-density of the other pews throughout the church. Mine was about average, so I counted rows and then sections and did some basic multiplication. Probably two-hundred and fifty people here at a church outside a very small town witnessing the passage of a husband and wife, the parents of my friend and co-worker.
No one knew the details but the internet had it as a murder-suicide. With a handgun. The husband having died at the hospital, or on the way, after shooting himself in the chest. They left two grown children and two still in high school, the younger two adopted, though I didn’t see how that mattered, they were now just as parentless as any other kids would be. My friend, Nic, is the oldest, but still a kid in my eyes, maybe in his early thirties. He has four children of his own, the youngest not yet one year old. Nic is a wonder. Easy going. Considerate. Smart. Wears a stud earring and shaves his head. A dedicated father and husband. And I’m soon to confirm, a dedicated sibling as well. (Nic spells his name without a “k” at the end, it’s short for Nicholas. I sometimes wonder if he’s ever been called “No-K Nic”. I haven’t asked him.)
The officiant, Brother Charles, had a difficult path to walk. This was a joint funeral. The deaths were intentional. I don’t know, but it seemed likely that one of the deceased may not have wanted to die. The family had all been together for Sunday dinner with nothing apparently amiss. But something was askew enough on Monday morning to end two lives. Lives that turned out a church brimmed full of people that cared about them and their family.
Brother Charles told us a story. I’ll condense it mightily. There was an organ-meister way back when in Germany. He played beautifully and had a special organ constructed at his mansion above the village. He played the townsfolk to sleep each evening for decades, until the organ broke down. Many tried and failed to repair it until finally one little old man managed the task. When asked how, he replied that he had built it all those years ago and so he was the one that could fix it now.
This Brother Charles followed with a reading (we bowed our heads): Romans 8:30 – 39. It’s about being called to God, and glorified by God. And about Christ Jesus dying for us and about those who are with God not being condemned by anyone, not being separated from God, from Christ Jesus, by any power, “…neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, …, nor anything else in all creation…”
Then Brother Charles did an interesting thing, he walked us back through these verses from end to beginning, pointing up the surety of the bond between God/Christ and His people. And that the deceased, this husband and wife, were His people — they were the first to welcome Brother Charles to this church twelve years earlier, they were with Him even back then. Brother Charles left it unsaid, but clearly whatever the manner of their death, they had not separated from Him still.
Brother Charles tossed out the wife’s favorite bible verse, Isaiah 40:31 “… they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run, and not be weary….”
Somebody played “Amazing Grace” which released the tension that had tangled inside the church. Then another song that I wasn’t familiar with but I now see is also a funeral standard. “Go Rest High on that Mountain” was rendered by one gentleman playing an acoustic guitar while another younger man sang. I found it better than Vince Gill’s original version when I found that later on YouTube, but the funeral environment may have contributed to the perceived quality. Nonetheless, as I heard that song for the first time and tried to pick out the lyrics, my own humor couldn’t help but imagine I heard something like:
… your work on Earth is done
Get to heaven in a hurry
Before the devil knows you’re gone.
The family filed out, and I got my first real look at Nic as he walked up the aisle. A bit numb, maybe, but getting it done. The rest of us were dismissed to join the family at the graveside, or not. We could choose.
Those of us who stepped over to the cemetery were ourselves, then no stranger to the rain. I would have driven off right after the church service, gone back to work and missed speaking to Nic, but I couldn’t very well fire up my SUV right next to the continuing ceremony. I fetched my umbrella and stood with the others, eight or ten deep around the tent that covered close family. Most of the other umbrellas were black, but there were a couple with golf stripes and one blue and orange one held by an Auburn fan. My own was a blue and white World Wildlife Fund miniature. Some men stood in the rain, the droplets running off their suit jackets. They declined cover offered by their neighbors. I know how right it can feel to let the melancholy rain fall on to you unwarded. I did not offer them mine.
I couldn’t hear the proceedings out here, too much noise from rain hitting fabric stretched taut between umbrella ribs, and too many bodies between me and the speakers, but after a few minutes folks began to disperse. I was back in my car looking up bible verses on my phone when I glanced up and noticed Nic was shaking someone’s hand just outside my passenger window. I stepped out into the drizzle and gave him a hug and an inadequate word. He said he was doing okay. “Abrupt” was his word for the whole ordeal and he was just trying to keep his sisters focused, moving them through the days. Ever Nic, helping others, and letting the tempest roll on.
I handed Nic off to someone else bearing condolences and climbed back in to my vehicle. As I sat there, I watched half a dozen other mourners reach out to him. Some did no more than put a hand on his sleeve. I could see him touch each heart and help them move through this sorrow. His loss was, and would remain, greater than theirs, but he gave to them, every one, a bit of peace. They had only to accept it. I let my bit of peace settle within me and then I drove back to work.
C. Richard Patton has published prose and poetry several places including in “Sci Phi Journal”, “Fiction365” and “A Walk with Nature”. He has possibly spent more time at a table tennis table in the church basement than in the pews, but believes both places can grow your soul.