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Catholic funerals and carrying the coffin

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My father-in-law’s coffin was heavy, a long box built of Texas pecan wood. The undertakers’ custom is to roll the coffin in and out of the church, up and down the aisle on a wheeled aluminum cart, its functional contours disguised by a maroon velvet skirt.

My husband thought his father had spent enough time on gurneys in the last, long decade of his dying.  He wanted his father carried by the pallbearers, carried, as his father had once carried each of his six sons. The undertakers fretted; what if they dropped the coffin? My husband assured them the eight young men Leonard had chosen to carry his pall — grandsons, by birth and by marriage — were sufficient to the task.

My sons told me later their grandfather’s coffin was heavy and hard to bear, as though all the years of Leonard’s suffering had settled into the wood. It seemed right that they, and we who stood and watched their slow progress, should be aware of all they bore: The weight of a man’s life and the burden of his passing.

In their stillness, in the way they turned from the marketplace for just that moment, they joined with us, and joined our prayer.

We walked from the church into the blue Texas sky, as vast as any ocean, and waited as they slid their grandfather into the hearse for his final journey through the town where he had lived for eighty-one years. Then we climbed into our cars, and we turned on our lights. We joined the parade of SUV’s and mini-vans and the pickups that sail the endless, straight roads of the unpeopled Panhandle, and began the drive to Llano Cemetery, where so many friends and kin already lay.

Ours was a long procession, beginning with a right turn onto one of the town’s busiest streets. It was late in the afternoon, coming home time, and I worried about my daughter-in-law, driving far behind us. This was her first visit to the place where my husband and I grew up, and I wondered if we would lose her on the winding way to the gravesite.

I looked out my window. The cars, in both directions, had pulled to the side of the road. We drove on, and at every turn, on every street, cars were stopped, waiting for us to pass. A man dressed in black leather chaps and vest got off his motorcycle, and stood, erect and still, his arms at his side. A man in jeans and a tee shirt, weeding the grass at a baseball field, stopped and turned towards us, removing his ball cap from his head in a gesture of respect.

We drove in a line that stretched back as far as I could see. And everywhere we looked, people, many of whom must have been in a hurry — to pick up food for supper, to get the bank before it closed, to watch a child’s game — waited for us to pass.

I have no reason to believe they knew my father-in-law; those who did were at the funeral Mass and here, in the procession. They would be standing near the open grave as the grandsons carried their grandfather to the place we have come so many times, bearing flowers and kneeling to pray.

These strangers stood as though they had nothing more important to do on a Tuesday afternoon than to wait and watch as a dead man and his mourners passed by.

I think about ritual every day. I write and teach about liturgy, the “public work” to which Christians are called. When I think of my father-in-law and his funeral, I will remember two moments when ritual gestures fully bore the weight of all we felt and feared and hoped.  I will remember eight young men carrying the body of one old one.  Our sons, who carry babies and who hold pretty girls in their arms as they dance, carried the man who had once been, like they, strong and swift and agile.  He, too, had danced and flirted and fallen in love. He, too, had cradled children and hushed their cries and tossed them, laughing, into the air. No more.

And I will remember those who stopped to stand witness — in the parking lot of a Walgreen’s, by the mailbox on a corner — as our procession passed. We prayed for the angels to lead Leonard into paradise. We prayed for the martyrs to welcome him and take him to the holy city, the new and eternal Jerusalem. We followed our children on the first leg of that journey. We did not expect it to be taken up by construction workers and carpooling moms and motorcyclists. In their stillness, in the way they turned from the marketplace for just that moment, they joined with us, and joined our prayer.

May the choirs of angels welcome you,
and where Lazarus is poor no longer
may you find eternal rest.

– Melissa Musick