by David Pettit
On these summer Sundays, I invite you to think about lives and what they have meant. To think not with a pietistic paintbrush, but to read carefully, in between the lines, and to discern how God’s gracious purposes might be present in the midst of life’s mixed realities, remembering that our attempt to speak for others’ stories is in some way an attempt to understand our own.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 1 Corinthians 15: 51-52
Mary arrived late as I stood with the immediate family. They were quiet, standing among the gravestones, shifting on their feet. It had been a few weeks since the memorial service. We stood in plain clothes in an all but hidden, rural cemetery for the inurnment. Mary pulled up in a silver El Camino. She had inherited the funeral home from her father. She was thin, wore a tan and draping overcoat and was raspy voiced from too many cigarettes. “Well, I got him,” she announced as she rose from the car.
Mary had little use for ministers. With a funeral arranged by Mary, I could expect to have no input, little notice, and less reimbursement. The matters of death and burial were all straightforward business in her mind. Ministers had little to offer to the affair, and their words struck no chords with her.
She reached to the back seat and pulled out a beautiful turquoise urn and handed it to the deceased’s oldest son. “Now,” she said with some meager attempt to find the right words, while leaning on the car door. “Apparently all of him did not fit in the urn.” She reached again to the back seat and pulled out a coffee can. “Here is the rest of him,” she proclaimed. “I’m not sure what you want to do with it. I guess he was a big man.” I don’t remember him being that large a man, I thought. The family shifted back on their heels, their eyes darted between the glassy urn and the old “Folgers” can. They were taken off-guard by the unexpected dilemma.
I observed with great interest at this point, and tried to contain any chuckles. I always thought of funeral homes bringing decorum to the untidy business of burial and remembering. The family members walked uneasily with me towards the grave where the groundskeeper had cut the precise-sized hole in the ground to contain the tiny vault that would house the urn. They set both containers near the hole that only had room for one. Suddenly, I found myself starting to like Mary.
In her callous style, Mary had broken through the impulse and decorum that allows or encourages families to pull out the positive memories while leaving at bay anything that might be deemed negative or capable of smearing the glassy memory of a loved one. For there sat the glassy urn along with the lackluster can, and room for only one. But what do you do with a person’s surplus, that which doesn’t fit cleanly with the rest?
I remember back to my own grandfather’s funeral. I remember people giving testimony and telling stories of his faith, of his well-worn Bible, of his faithfulness and prayerfulness—all while his surviving children sat in the front row looking down and away. The minister gave a glowing eulogy of my grandfather’s public churchgoing life, stealing uncomfortable glances once in a while in the direction of the downcast descendants, as if to acknowledge that there was only room for one story; the glassy one would be told.
The cemetery groundskeeper walked forward as I finished, obviously observing the family’s uncertainty as to what to do. He compassionately took his shovel and added a carefully cut half circle onto the existing square hole; big enough to receive the tin urn. The one laid to rest along with the other. I continued to observe, standing passively by, as these rather un-ceremonial figures did the holy work of laying a whole person to rest. As they drove off in cars, a rusty truck, and one silver El Camino, I walked slowly to my car. I walked by others whose burials I had officiated, and wondered to myself if all of them had really fit into their glassy urns.
David Pettit is a minister of the Reformed Church in America, currently serving Calvary Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, and pursuing doctoral studies in Hebrew Bible at the University of Denver.