A Winter’s Tale
The funeral home was impressive from the outside. But the dignity of the white pillars standing guard outside the large double doors disappeared when you stepped inside and walked on old carpeting into a dimly lit room with dark wood paneling. Across the room were a pair of lime green armchairs embossed with tarnished silver studs. One of the chairs held an old guy – probably the custodian. He was up for some company and I wasn’t in a hurry. He brought out hot, strong coffee. I gulped down as much as I could, hoping the heat would raise my body temperature.
Up in northern Minnesota, he told me, they bury the dead in vaults above the ground during winter. Down here in tropical St. Paul, however, everyone goes underground. “Backhoes, power hammers, whatever it takes,” he said cheerfully, explaining that after the machines pierced the frost line, winter grave digging offered no special challenges.
“Are you the pastor?” he asked, nodding at the thick black book I held in the hand that wasn’t holding the coffee. I
shook my head. “I was his social worker.” He nodded again. “Nice of you to come.”
He handed me an annual calendar card that, right under the funeral chapel’s name and the American flag, listed him as the director. We talked a while longer, then he excused himself. He came back and said “They’re out there in the new cemetery. You’ll want to drive your car. Just park it behind the hearse. Take your coffee with you. They’re probably waiting for you.”
The wind hurled snow at my face as I hurried to my car. It started, and I took off, not bothering to turn on the heater because it was one of those days where you just never get warm. I parked behind the white hearse, swallowed more coffee, and joined the huddled group of three men: the undertaker, his assistant, and an acquaintance of the dead man. The looks they gave me made it clear. They had been waiting for me, standing in the cold.
We introduced ourselves and made small talk while the wind burned our cheeks and our toes went numb. The undertaker’s assistant pointed behind us to some frozen flower bouquets sticking out of a mound of snow. “Did that one yesterday,” he said. “A 14 year old boy.” Car accident? I asked. “Nah,” he said. “He went into the hospital three years ago for surgery and came out a vegetable. Couldn’t talk or nothing. A damn shame. It’s a real blessing he died.”
We turned to our coffin. It rested on two thick straps that wound around a broad stainless steel frame. At the proper time, the contraption would mechanically lower the coffin into the ground. Behind the grave a chain link fence separated the cemetery from Interstate Highway 96. Sometimes we felt a shudder from the impact of air being displaced by speeding cars.
We turned away from the wind to our coffin. The undertaker asked if I wanted to say some prayers. He deferred to me, I suspected, because the county I worked for was paying for the funeral, and he was unsure if I was attending as a mourner or to make sure county money was being well spent. Yes, I said, I would say some prayers.
I opened the Saint Andrew’s Missal, made the sign of the cross and read Psalm 129, the De Profundis, in English. We were about 30 feet from the highway and I found my voice rising to compete with passing trucks and cars. Then a plane flew overhead, drowning out the plea: “Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord! Lord hear my voice.”
Next I read in the Burial Mass, ending awkwardly, it felt, with the prayer for absolution. A priest should be doing this, not me. But this was a county burial, not a funeral; besides, we weren’t even sure the dead man had ever been baptized.
Part of the problem was that the dead man, when alive, often gave conflicting information about himself. I wasn’t even sure his real name was Charles, although he answered to it. Different people got different versions about when Charles’ birthday was, what his Social Security number was, which war he was in, whether or not he was married, whether or not he had children, and so on. I don’t think Charles was trying to confuse people; I think he was confused about things.
Years of drinking had given Charles what we indelicately call ‘a wet brain’: the symptoms resembled dementia. Charles and his muddled memory were staying at a homeless shelter until he started heaving up blood. At the hospital they discovered he had lung cancer. The surgeon took out half a lung, then sent Charles to a nursing home to recuperate from surgery.
Charles recovered so completely that he started assaulting people. He was taken to the psych ward and some genius diagnosed him as mentally ill. I was told to find him another place to live.
The last year of Charles’ life was spent in a different nursing home. Charles stopped fighting, but turned to stealing cigarettes and staying out past curfew. He developed prostate cancer. Then his kidneys started failing. Charles became too weak to panhandle on University Avenue. For his own safety he was placed on the locked unit of the nursing home. Like a caged bird, he wilted. The last time I talked to him he recognized me but was too weak and confused to say much. I didn’t tell him things would be okay however, because he wasn’t that confused.
There is no remedy for renal failure, but Charles rallied briefly anyway. He even ate solid food for a few days;. On Sunday night staff checked his vital signs. All was well. Charles fell asleep and a few hours later died quietly, alone in his bed.
Because of the state of Charles’ health, his clothes were destroyed. The home was so thorough that Charles had no burial clothes. Not that it mattered. His was a closed casket funeral without family, friends, or coworkers. There weren’t even any enemies. Charles left this world in a winding cloth and nothing else.
The acquaintance at Charles’ burial was a retired bus driver named Bruce. He had talked to Charles a couple of times while visiting Charles’ roommate at the nursing home. After the prayers at Charles’ grave Bruce sang a verse of a Swedish hymn in a clear, strong tenor voice. Then Bruce told me of a night Charles said, “I know I’m dying and I want to get right with God.”
Bruce said, “I sat with Charles and we prayed together, and he accepted Jesus as his personal savior.” After a moment Bruce said “It was the kind of meeting I dream about.”
We watched the coffin drop into the dark hole, smoothly and quietly. Traffic continued to zoom by. The undertaker shook our hands and left, leaving it to his assistant to complete the burial. Bruce made a joke about his mother calling De Profundis the “scuba divers prayer.” I stared at him. Then, for some reason, I told Bruce I had prevented Charles from being cremated. He shook his head in irritation. “It doesn’t matter what happens to our bodies. We are spirit. When we rise again we get glorified bodies. The Bible says ‘the sea will give up its dead.’”
I wasn’t sure how all those thoughts were connected to each other. I thought about explaining the anti-Christian origins of cremation, how the cremation societies of the 19th century were masonic in origin; their motives were to emphasize materialism and de-emphasize the religious dogma of the resurrection of the body.
Instead I tried a more familiar response, remarking that St. Paul said our bodies were temples of the Holy Spirit. “Yes, if you possess the Holy Spirit,” Bruce said with a glint in his eye. Fair enough, I thought.
(Later I wondered if Bruce directed that remark at me. Being a former Protestant, I find Protestant suspicions somewhat refreshing – preferable to the insipid ecumenism some of them have fallen to.)
I looked Bruce square in the eye, shook his hand and smiled: “One day we’ll know for sure.” Then we parted.
Charles was not only materially unencumbered when he left this world. His sole spiritual sustenance was meager too: the best wishes of a Protestant passerby and the hope against hope prayers of his Catholic social worker for Charles’ soul. It was oddly fitting that Charles died on December 10: the feast of Our Lady of Loreto. Loreto, Italy is the site of the Holy House of Nazareth, said to have been transported from Nazareth to Loreto by angels. Maybe the prayers for Charles, so frequently homeless, persuaded Our Lady to bring Charles to his real home.
Yes, it’s a long shot – a real long shot. But to deny the possibility of prayer changing a soul’s destination is not to be Catholic. Besides, winter has set in, and it’s already tough enough to feel warm.
Copyright 2019 Moina Arcee