It happens often in rural parishes that priests preside at funerals for people they have never met. Parishioners have retired and moved away, but wish to be buried form the home church and in their family cemetery. Elderly people are in distant nursing homes or hospitals. Sometimes, a new priest simply has not found the time to visit someone housebound.
Such was the case with Elwyn. His little homestead was halfway up the mountain. I barely knew who he was. His world had shrunk to a hospital bed in the living room. I had been in my new parish only six weeks.
His wife and children cared for him. He was on oxygen, a victim of COPD. He rarely left the house. His wife, a woman who had faithfully attended the church for decades, was always by his side. I had seen her briefly at an evening service, and while the household was on my visiting list, they had not yet made it into the next rota. The house lay in the second circle for visits; I would have been there in another two weeks.
Elwyn had caught cold. More likely, it was a bacterial infection brought in by one of the grandchildren. It took his life quickly, almost in a matter of hours.
The phone rang just as I was in my kitchen, having fed the sheep and made coffee. I was in clerics, but the collar was still unattached. It was Marcia, a neighbour and niece to Elwyn’s wife, Nina. “Uncle Elwyn’s passed,” she said. “The ambulance was just here. He couldn’t be resuscitated. Could you come out? Aunt Nina’s doing poorly.”
I put on my collar and drove up the mountain. Family and friends were arriving. Sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, grandchildren. Mother-in-law with sister-in-law. Cousins, siblings. The small house was crowded. The two nieces were busily cleaning, moving the hospital bed out to the porch, opening windows. They swept, shook out blankets, bundled sheets into the laundry. Nina sat at the kitchen table, holding her mother’s hands, barely moving.
I sat beside her. A niece put a cup of nescafe coffee in front of me. It was horrible, but I drank it in small sips as Nina slowly talked.
“He started to cough,” she said. “And then he started to choke. So I got behind him and lifted him, but he just gasped and died. Right there. In my arms. He was gone just like that.”
She had screamed for a grandson to call his father from next door. Harry had rushed in; his CPR efforts did not revive him. The ambulance arrived, and they worked on Elwyn for half an hour, They were too late. The pressure in his chest had stopped his heart.
He had been ill a long time, but his death was sudden. The stress of caring for her disabled husband had weakened Nina, too. Her heart was weak, her nerves frayed and raw.
The youngest grandson sat in a corner of the living room, weeping. He was pale and sweating. I put a hand on his forehead. He had a fever. He had contracted the same infection that had killed his grandfather. Alarmed, I asked him which of the many people in the room was his parent. He pointed to Maurice. “That’s my dad.”
I threaded through the crowd of coffee drinkers and took Maurice by the arm. “Sammy is sick.”
He looked startled through his thick glasses, then followed me to the corner. “Yeah, you’re right, he’s just burning up.”
I went to the bathroom, found a washcloth, soaked it in cold water, and went back to Sammy. I took the child, who was about seven years old, on my lap, and bathed his face and neck. He coughed pitifully and leaned against me. He cried silent tears from fever and shock.
“Maurice, maybe you should take him to the clinic.”
Maurice nodded, and took the little boy in his arms. “Come on, partner. We’re going to go.” He found the child’s jacket and ushered him out the door.
Nina didn’t want the casket open at the viewing hours. Elwyn had been puffy with steroid induced edema. His face was mottled with broken capillaries, she said. She didn’t want to see him all made up, just so people could stare at him. She was nearly hysterical about it. The funeral director and I didn’t push her. The family was troubled, but she had the right to decide. We agreed to hold the visiting hours in the church, and save the expense of the funeral chapel. I was doing the funeral at the church anyway. Elwyn would be buried in the little plot they had bought forty years before, when they had lost twin girls at birth. There was no stone, so I had the gravesite marked by the cemetery warden, but two days before the funeral, we had a hard freeze and a deep snow. We would not be opening the grave until spring.
The church was busy for the visiting hours. Sammy was still sick, and I put him in the vestry with books, toys and drawing equipment. He was tearful and somewhat drippy, but he had been prescribed an antibiotic and was already improving.
The funeral was uneventful. It was a typical Anglican funeral. A cousin played the anthems. Nina was tearful and upset that Elwyn was going in the vault, and not in the ground, but it was an expensive proposition to open a plot in the winter after the hard freeze and through snow. Mistakes had been made in the past. Without a clear triangulation of the plot, I dreaded the possibility of accidentally digging up a little white coffin.
The vault was a concrete walled building with a peaked roof, painted a plain medium grey. The door was securely locked. I had a key, the cemetery warden had a key, the funeral director had a key. It was dry and clean. In the summer, the gardener kept his maintenance tools and a lawn chair in the vault, and he would rest in its cool shade on hot days. The caskets were couched on steel racks. It was as secure and vermin-proof as the Tower of London treasure rooms. It was locked because one local, having lost his mother the year after the vault was built, took to visiting it before her interment. No one had thought it necessary to lock in the deceased.
I asked the sons to keep Nina in the church while we took Elwyn’s casket to the vault. She shook them off and walked out with us. She held a handkerchief to her mouth, a son at each arm, steadying her on the ice. The casket was slid into place, the door locked as I said prayers.
Nina got through the winter with help. She had her children, her family, her neighbours around her. She never mentioned the coming interment. Perhaps she had blocked it out of conscious thought.
I could not forget it. I had no problem with using the vault. It was an old thing rediscovered. In previous generations, those who died in deep winter were put in their coffins, the coffin wrapped in oiled or waxed cloth, and the coffin set on trestles in an empty granary or shed. Some places tried to open the ground by building fires over the gravesite, but in our rock-bound mountaintop cemetery, this was impossible. A backhoe could open the frozen shale and gravelly loam, but caused too much damage going in. Stones were sometimes damaged, and the whole procession from church to grave was fraught with the danger of broken ankles.
I could not forget that the interment was delayed because Elwyn was restless. While his body and casket lay locked in the vault, I could sense and see his spirit prowling around the church, standing at the gates of the cemetery, shaking his head in impatience. I had to pass through the cemetery to feed the sheep twice a day, and I found myself hurrying to finish before sunset, when his presence was more apparent.
I do not fear the dead or their spirits. But his cold, sometimes visible dissatisfaction was uncomfortable to pass through.
Spring came. Nina was composed and quiet through the interment. It was brief, with just the immediate family gathered. Sammy had grown a couple of inches since his birthday. He had matured quickly.
The sheep watched from the pasture. The sun was high, bright and warm. It was a different world from the spirit haunted winter snow, the icy winds, the moonlight shadowing a bulky, hunched figure at the lych-gate.
I did not see Elwyn again. I had never seen him in life, nor in the silent flesh; I knew him only as a shadow. I was satisfied that he had, finally, found rest.