Friday, April 10, 2009
Small Town Funeral
VanBergen steers the hearse out of the funeral home parking lot in small town Indiana. I’m in the passenger seat, hoping the family liked my words. But these weren’t church people and I don’t think they got the metaphors. VanBergen holds out a pack of Doublemint gum while checking the family cars in his rearview mirror. “Want one, chaplain?” Up ahead, the town cop eases us through an intersection, blue and red lights flashing. People still stop in these small towns, pulling over in pickups and minivans, imagining our solemn conversations.
Not what you’d think, a lot of the time. A few people come up afterwards and say “Nice job, chaplain,” and Ray would have liked that. But you never hear the whole truth at a funeral. I was sitting in VanBergen’s office afterwards and a pinch-faced lady stuck her head in the door and said, “Nice words, chaplain. But do you know if Ray accepted the Lord there in the hospital?” I thought about that, and said, “You know, I think Ray’s going to be ok.” She looked unsatisfied and left emptyhanded.
We’re out in the country now. VanBergen’s still talking nonstop as we lead the orderly line of cars with headlights on. “Embalm every one myself,” he says. “I used to have an assistant. But the last one started bad-mouthing me down at the café. He said I was making him do all the work. So I said, you know who was working your position before you? And he said, nobody. And I said, that’s right.” VanBergen’s cell phone rings and he chats with his daughter down at Purdue. I hear a lot during these rides. The real story about the deceased. Or how gravediggers used to light a bed of hot coals over a January grave to thaw out the ground the night before, before propane heaters. Advice for long-winded ministers. “Like I tell the pastors,” VanBergen says, “The ear only hears what the rear can bear.”
We pull off the highway into a bleak little cemetery, a canvas canopy tent flapping in the March wind. VanBergen gets the pallbearers into a huddle and calls the signals. “OK men, I want your backs to the car.” He swings the rear gate open, repositions the guy in the NASCAR jacket by the shoulders and says, “Now look straight ahead,” and slides the casket out. “That’s it now, grab the handles and lift straight up. That’s right. Straight up. Watch your feet.” They totter forward, free arms outstretched, over to the grave. I wait as the stragglers wander up. VanBergen nods to me and I begin the service, which I shorten in a few places due to the cold. In the back, a big guy with a beard weeps, unnoticed. Afterwards people scurry back to their cars and VanBergen hands me the envelope. “Gotta run,” he says, “I got a 4 o’clock and a six.”
I ride back to Ray’s house with his widow and Ray Junior. We don’t talk about Ray at all. The old house is cramped but warm, smells like wet dogs, and the food’s arranged on two card tables. People who never dress up are taking off jackets and ties and lighting cigarettes, the women in the kitchen, the men in the living room watching the game. Nobody asks me to bless the meal.
So I wait in line with my Styrofoam plate. And there it is: green bean casserole with cream of mushroom and French onions on top, sliced ham for the Wonder bread, macaroni and cheese, apple pie, Pepsi and beer in the fridge. And as I lean over the pan of red jello I realize: they didn’t need me at all. For everything necessary is right here, a sermon of love set out in scuffed Tupperware. Comfort on a card table: grace enough to fill the ragged, empty grief of everyone in Ray’s house. Whether they want it to or not.