Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Rachel's funeral

A week ago Tuesday was a brilliant, sunny, four-mountain day, though what with the firs and the Lincoln Memorial slope, you could see only Mt. Adams, from Rachel's plot at least. Dry skies, but soggy lawn there at the cemetery--even muddy, thanks to the backhoe having recently mucked up the area scooping out the grave. So there the 20 or so of us stood, making squishy sounds every time we shifted our weight, behind a row of seated mourners: Charlie, Rachel's daughters Nancy (and husband Chuck Reagan) and Marjorie (and husband Max Luce), her son Ken (Rachel's other son, Richard, had to drive home to North Dakota last week, just prior to his mother's passing). And Dad and Shirley. Enid Briggs may have sat down, too....anymore when she and Adele go places, Adele (who still moves and converses with caffeinated liveliness) always reaches the door a full minute ahead of Enid, who is really slowing down these days.

A Dr. David Stevens, the pastor of Central Bible Church where Charlie and Rachel have attended for decades and decades...this trim, tall, smiling, pleasant FYO type (Fine Young Officer--thanks to Seth for giving me a succinct way to describe this type of personality) cheerily administered the first of two floggings: Don't feel sad! Rachel is in heaven! Don't feel sad! You'll see her again! Don't feel sad! She's happy now! Don't feel sad! Christ is risen!

Meanwhile, we stood around feeling sad, and slowly sinking a tad into the sodden ground. It was 15 minutes devoted not to Rachel, not to remembering her place in our lives, but to Jesus. "If there was one thing Rachel would want, if she were standing here right now," the pastor said fervently, "it would be that everyone here knew Jeezus as their personal savior and was assured of a future in heaven."

Au contraire. If Rachel had been standing there then, and if precedent was any indication, she would have regularly interrupted her pastor to correct his facts, to add details that he omitted and she thought necessary, to direct the conversation. Not once did Rachel ever talk to me of her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, or even talk about him in my presence. What she did talk about around me were her hiking treks, her kids, her sweet corn. Yet no one doubted her spirituality--after all, she swam in the same American-Protestant-farmer ocean we all did. (Although we all obeyed the subtle, tacit signals to avoid looking too closely at the details of each other's lives. The modern virtues of personal accountability and transparency, even in a church setting, make most of the older people in my clan just plain itchy.)

Anyway, when the pastor ended, Lois Johnson played a sadly sweet hymn on her flute, accompanied by distant birdsong in trees around us. No one else said a word, and we were dismissed. No memories spoken by family members, no laying of mementos on the casket or dropped into the grave. Nothing to sate the human craving for ritual at a time like this. Only the sermon-flogging, a couple prayers delivered with forced cheeriness, some snuffling into hankies, then shuffling into cars. Talk about grievius interruptus.

Then came the signal that this fam has yet to master the logistics of food at funerals. "There'll be a meal for us following the memorial service at the church," Chuck Reagan announced. "But if you want lunch between and the service, you're on your own." It was 1:10 pm, we'd been at the cemetery an hour or so, people were hungry, we would most certainly grab a quick bit enroute to the church service--and another meal at 3:30? I remember at Jean's funeral, the church meal immediately preceded the service, which meant there was no organized reason to sit down together following the service and remember Jean over food. At least in this case, a meal together following the service would give us a way to decompress from the day, even if we weren't really that hungry.

The loop of road that surrounds the oval of cemetery that holds Rachel's remains also holds those of her sister Jean, whom we put in the ground a year ago (March 8). So on our way to the cars, some of us walked the few yards to Jean and Elman's graves, sighed a little, remembered the years engraved on the marble markers, thought fondly of glass eyes and old goats and springerle Christmas cookies and Studebakers.

Perhaps the high point of the afternoon for me was the quick lunch hastily arranged with
Betsy Ray (my second cousin, I think) and her three delightful and youngest girls Emma, Abby, and Marta...and Robin and Nate...and soon word got out to Eleanor Briggs (Betsy's mom, who lost her husband a few years ago), and Enid and Adele, and Becky and Bruce...and so we had a lively and talkative time at a nearby Red Robin over mushroom burgers, oriental chicken salad, and french fries on steroids.

Then, at church, a redundant sermon (how dare we feel sad! After all God's done for Rachel, and us!), crimped logic (the psalmist writes that God heals all our illnesses--which is exactly what God did when he took Rachel home to heaven. I.e., death = healing), and a solo by a quavery soprano with vibrato big enough to throw a cat through. And still no voices from family and friends remembering the livewire that Rachel was. More prayers, a hymn, out to the lobby to mingle for a half hour, then to the fellowship hall. We may not have been particularly hungry (having eaten lunch only 90 minutes earlier), but
good church potluck people that we were, we would never disappoint deaconnesses who made scalloped potatoes and broccoli salad and fried chicken just for us.

A more private and personal service took place the night Rachel passed, when I drove directly from her apartment to Becky and Bruce's, where we set a fire in the firepit and, through cigar smoke and between sips of port, remembered Rachel, her family, and our place in it, talking long into the dark that night.