Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Finality With an Open End

In the sunlight of Saturday’s early spring morning cool, we carefully set the casket on supports that suspended it above the open grave, and then stepped back into the congregation.

A group of grizzled veterans stood at attention. Their commander read a brief tribute to my father-in-law, their fallen comrade in arms. Reciting a short prayer, the chaplain concluded with words from John 11:25, “Jesus said …, I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

In the calm following the dying echoes of the old soldiers’ precision rifle volleys, my uniformed Eagle Scout son solemnly brought his trumpet to his lips and sounded the clearest tones I have ever heard from his instrument. As the haunting melody of Taps slowly floated through the morning air, the gnarled commander raised his arm with measured deliberation to a salute. The ear could detect only sniffles and stifled sobs beyond my son’s self-taught bugle call.

With quiet exactness, three soldiers reverently removed the flag that draped the casket and folded it into a tight triangle showing only a blue field covered with embroidered white stars. One of the veterans knelt before my mother-in-law and presented her with this magnificent symbol on behalf of a grateful nation, along with a handful of spent rifle shells.

The old soldiers finally saluted, quickly gathered their gear, and were soon gone. Their presentation lasted perhaps five minutes. But the feelings it left will endure a lifetime. It seemed that the sanctity of human life was comprehended far deeper by these common men of war than by the most erudite philosopher.

We said our words, sang our songs, and prayed our prayers. The sun warmed the cool air. A light but chill breeze reminded me simultaneously of the hope of spring and of a bleak thread weaving through my soul. The entire affair was concise and simple, just as Dad wanted. In finality, my oldest sons and I stepped forward and placed our white pall bearers’ carnations on the casket. A final prayer of dedication, and then it was over.

As the crowd dispersed, my family lingered at the insistence of my children, even as workmen came forth from their discrete places to complete the physical task of burial. An odd mixture of feelings jumbled in my heart as we finally left the cemetery, the last of our group to do so.

Gathering at a church, where loving sisters had prepared a simple meal, the mood gave way from solemn contemplation to conversation, smiles, and laughter. Lives that had Dad as a common connecting point briefly intersected pleasantly. Within an hour, we combined our efforts to quickly clean up, leaving little trace of what had transpired. We arrived at home feeling spent, though the day had not been physically strenuous.

Yesterday evening my family returned to Dad’s grave. The ground has been compacted and the sod has been replaced. No marker has yet been set. But a mound of beautiful, yet dying flowers clearly marks the spot. Sounds are dampened in the grassy rolling surrounds. Magnificent mountains rise to the east.

As we gaze at the grave, no one else is at the cemetery besides us. It is beautiful, but is propounded by a sense of loneliness. Though I have come to honor my father-in-law, in the deepest recesses of my soul I know he is not there. I am reminded of a poem I wrote for Dad last Friday and that I recited at his funeral. I call it Leaving.

In joy I’ve lived upon this earth
And seen a million glorious things.
And found such love, even from my birth;
To the heavens my full heart sings.

Yet time has come for me to leave
And return to courts on high—
To the God who humbly for us lived
And came to earth to die.

Mourn our parting, but know ye this:
Together one day we’ll stand
Bound in perfect love and peace
In God’s most glorious land.

1 comment:

That One Guy said...

this is a very nice tribute. Your reverence for your father in law is well evidenced.