Ashes to Ashes

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Cremation is a delicate subject among a country congregation. It is seen as undignified and disrespectful by many among the older generation. For my Danish congregations, it evoked old world memories, of pagan funeral legends and witch persecutions.

Rarely, someone from the community would die at a distance, and the only practical way to inter the remains was cremation, the ashes transported by a family member or friend. The funeral for a cremation seemed hollow to the local people, a party without the guest of honour. It lacked drama. An Anglican funeral of the old Book of Common Prayer is dignified, spare drama. It is one of the better scenes from a Shakespearean tragedy.  It evokes Act 3 of Richard II, the telling of sad stories of the deaths of kings, while ending in triumph, knowing that the Redeemer lives and at the last day, shall stand upon the earth. It needs its silent central character.

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Instead of the entrance into the church of the coffin, preceded by the priest reciting scripture, the urn was placed on a small table at the front, outside the chancel. I would have it in the place where the casket would usually be, at the foot of the chancel steps, covered with plain white linen,  as a substitute for the pall. The pall is important in old Anglican funerals. It symbolizes the grave clothes, and since it is the property of the church, it dignifies the poor and humbles the rich. It covers both an expensive casket and the poorest coffin. The pall goes on the casket at the church door, before the entry into the nave. Traditionally, nothing is placed on the pall, no insignia, no personal item, no flowers. In death, all are equal.

I had decided on draping cremation urns for the same reason. Some families chose to use nothing but the box in which the ashes were returned to them, and others had chosen expensive, ornate containers. Most old Anglican churches still had the white paraments of a previous generation, and the Altar Guild would choose something suitable in size as a substitute for a pall.

Before the funeral, as I made my parish rounds, I would hear the local tisking and clucking over the choice of cremation. “Oh, jah, but you know that her mother would not have wanted this, she didn’t hold with these modern things…” The lack of suitable visiting before the funeral was lamented. I could patiently explain that the wake was for the living, not the dead, but I was not convincing. Of course they wanted to see the deceased one last time. A bank of photos was not adequate. There was an unspoken belief – unspoken to me, at least – that we were rushing things, burning the body. What if the soul was not ready? What if the soul needed to know the body was properly buried? I did not dismiss their concerns as superstition.

At my first parish, on that bleak north shore, I had suggested a columbarium, a structure built like a wall, with sealed niches for cremated remains. Many had moved away after the war, and providing for a resting place for those who wanted their ashes returned to their ancestral home made sense. The horrible Sand Hill cemetery was running out of viable burial space, and the Clifton cemetery was washing slowly into the Bay. But my Irish-Canadian co-patriots would have none of that. They had corporate memories of the Famine, and the horrifying quick disposal of the many victims, the survivors too weak to dig proper graves.

I had a call one summer’s evening from a neighbour who was not a parishioner. He belonged to the Lutheran congregation, which was without a pastor at that time. I presided over their funerals, weddings and baptisms, while a congregant read their Sunday services. there was a certain amount of sneaking across the road – literally, as the churches faced each other at the top of the mountain. “I need to hear a real minister,” said one Lutheran escapee. I could remind that we are all ministers of the church, but she preferred the signature of the bishop on an actual license, thank you. I was not needed officially for Lutheran funerals; this though, was a delicate matter.

The deceased had not lived in the community since he departed for military service. He had been a bit of a wild young man, and he hadn’t held with regular church attendance. His dying request, though, was that his ashes be transported back to the hills of his immigrant ancestors, to be mingled with the native soil. And here was the really delicate part: He wanted to have his ashes scattered on the family farm.

This I could not do. Human remains could not be simply strewn on agricultural land. Neither the government nor the church would allow this.

The old friend and I met to work out details. “I can place some of the ashes in an unused area of the farm, ” I suggested, “but not as scattered to the winds. They must be buried. But the bishop will insist that there is a burial in sacred ground, so most of the ashes need to go into the cemetery.”

“Ah, well, we can do that much,” the old friend said. “The family has a plot. I will ask them.”

So this was the plan. A small amount of the ashes would be transferred to a wooden box, and would be buried in the farm hedgerow among the roots of a suitable tree, with prayers for the deceased and the hallowing of that place. The remainder of the ashes would be interred next to the family headstone at the Anglican cemetery.

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It was a beautiful late summer day. A few weary maple and birch leaves were in red and yellow dress. The sky was the pure, astounding blue of the north, with white clouds like the sails of Viking ships. We walked down along the verge of a potato field soon to be harvested, and stopped under a tall, old birch. I climbed through the russet branches of a hazelnut copse, and stood on the wide root of the tree. The old friend dug a suitable hole with a garden spade, and I said a few words as the little carved box was planted. The wind sighed in the branches above us, and the leaves pattered as if feet were climbing quickly up a stairway we could not see.

The rest of the family and close friends met us at the cemetery. The words were the usual ones from the Book of Common Prayer, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” in the sure hope of the resurrection.

“That’s finished,” said the old friend as we left the grave.

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No Rest

Edouard Hildebrandt

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.

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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.

A Last Love

Clergy-in-training are cautioned time and again: Do not fall in love with a parishioner. It violates all the relational mores we are supposed to keep. It is not a relationship of equality. You, the clergy-person, hold forgiveness and sacrament. You are always the parent, never the partner.

I incautiously overstepped that rule once.

Lars was in hospital. Not the most modern, or the biggest, or even the closest, but the tiny twelve bed facility where I served as chaplain once a week and on call. I did not know Lars; I was new in the parish, and he rarely attended service. He was more likely to go to the Roman Catholic church on the far side of the parish boundary with his caregiver.

Lars was no longer young in body. His vision and hearing were failing. He had been a life-long bachelor, in a tidy little house in a glen over the ridge from the rectory and church. It was set in a lush meadow, with a merry brook running through. I doted on that farm. It evoked ancestral memories.

Lars was sitting up in bed, in the concentrated care room right off the nurses’ station. His caregiver, Antonia, was with him. It was late. There had been a difficulty of some sort getting him to hospital, a doctor arriving late, Lars detained, gray and coughing, in the emergency examining room for a couple of hours. It was dark: I had to get the porter to let me in.

With an oxygen cannula in his nose, Lars was improving. I whispered to Antonia as I met her, “Heart attack?” She shook her head. “No, just bad pneumonia again. It comes on him suddenly.” I held out my hand to Lars. “I don’t know you,” he said softly, in a sibilant Danish accent. “But I know who you are. Andy speaks highly of you.”

I looked to Antonia. “Andy – Anders Madsen. His nephew.” A warden, active in the church.

I pulled up a chair to the bedside. Antonia excused herself to go home.

“Not yet, Tonia,” Lars said. “You should get the reverend lady a cup of coffee or tea first.”

Antonia smiled. “If she wishes.”

I waved her out the door, protesting that I needed nothing. I was impressed, though, with the chivalry of this elegant elderly man, who addressed the hospitality owed a guest even as he was ill in hospital.

He turned clear blue eyes on me, and a high wattage smile. I returned the smile.

“My dear reverend lady,” he said. “Why are you here?”

“Because you are ill, and I have come to pray for you.”

“You don’t know me at all. You have never met me before. And yet you came all this way to see me, in the dark!”

“Of course.”

“Because it is your job?”

“Because I wanted to.”

I had received a call from the duty nurse, asking me to come in.  This wasn’t unusual, as I was the chaplain on call, and the clergy of record for almost half the county. I had charge of five churches with four congregations.  I had two classes of confirmation students, a total of twenty-five. My parish itself was in the hundreds of square miles. There were four hospitals within my range. Despite high demand I did want to see the sick, the housebound, the elderly and the least mobile.  I preferred the company of the very young and the very old.

Lars was over eighty years old. He was handsome. He was tall, upright, thin. He had a craggy Viking face, eyes the colour of summer skies, and a sharp mind. He had farmed all his life, but like some of the older inhabitants of the Settlement, he had learned to read in English and Danish at home. He had not attained many years of schooling before he was needed in the fields; still, he had educated himself.

“Come sit on the edge of the bed,” he urged me. “I can barely hear you down there.” So I perched on the outer boundary of the hospital mattress as he held my hand and asked me where I was from, who my people were, what I did with my time. I was breaking the first rule: Never sit on the bed. I was well-known for breaking this rule. I was – and am – an unapologetic hand-holder, hugger, and motherer. I kiss cheeks and comb hair. I make soup and cups of tea. I have even gotten on the bed to take a dying friend in my arms, despite my clerical collar and title.

Lars was in hospital a week. I gave him communion and prayed with him daily. I sat on the bed and held his hand. I kissed his cheek. He loved a good story. He had little breath for talking, so he let me talk about my sheep, my travels, what I had found in the countryside as I wandered with my dog.

We fell in love.

It was a beautiful and chaste love. We would sit quietly at times, holding hands. We didn’t have to express this emotion, this autumn romance. Sometimes Antonia would come in, or Anders. But mostly we sat alone, until he was discharged. I visited him at home about twice a week, with cups of tea and sweet bread made by Antonia. She joined us more often in the kitchen, and encouraged him to fill up the time with tales of his own life.

Adoption had been common among the Danes in the early half of the twentieth century. Some families took in orphans and abandoned children, Danish or otherwise, as easily as old ladies take in stray cats. Anders had been among those children, adopted by an uncle and aunt when his own parents died in an influenza outbreak. He was raised with four other adopted siblings. He remembered his childhood as happy and blissful. His adoptive parents doted on the children. They were rural poor, eking out a subsistence living on the farm, with cows, potatoes, grain fields and a large garden to manage. Dollars were earned working for other farmers, wild-harvesting hazelnuts and blueberries to sell, and cutting cord wood. Toys were handmade. Lars remembered a wooden wagon, painted red, and a homemade teddy bear. Food had been plain and plentiful. The days were long and full of work. He regretted he had not been able to attend school after age ten, but he had gained his height and strength early, and he was needed to drive a team.

He was a natural shepherd, but it had been a couple of decades since he had kept sheep. We talked sheep endlessly. Anders took him for a drive and they stopped at my pasture so he could admire my flock of Shetlands. He leaned on his cane and surveyed the ewes and near-grown lambs. “Where’s your ram?” he asked. “I didn’t keep one,” I said. “Those two over there are wethers. I will borrow a friend’s purebred ram next month.”

“I do like the coloured fleeces,” he said, gently scratching the ears of Gala, a grey ewe with a lively white splash on her black head. “Oh, these are fine looking animals, reverend lady. You have them spoiled.”

I promised to bring a lamb or two by in the spring, to see if he wanted to keep a pair as pets. The Shetlands are small, intelligent sheep, hardy and thrifty. He would look forward to it, he said.

I felt as if an old Viking Lensgreve had visited me.

Antonia called me from the hospital a few days later. “Lars has had a relapse,” she said. “There is a lot of fluid building up.”

I went into the hospital to see him that afternoon. He was very weak, but his smile was still sweet and strong. I sat on the bed and gave him communion, supporting his head as he received the wine, and finishing the chalice myself.  He had no strength for words, so I sat with him, held his hand and sang softly, old hymns I knew by heart.

After a while, he said gently, “You go home, reverend lady. I will see you again.”

I kissed his cheek. It was cold. There was a hint of a tear in his eye.

Anders called me later that night, as I sat in front of my fireplace, reading John Gardner’s novel of the Protestant Revolution in Scandinavia, Freddy’s Book. It is a tale of nobility, spirituality and defeating the devil in the far north. I had just poured a small glass of sherry.

“Lars has passed,” Anders said. “Antonia and I are here. Do you want to come in?”

Of course I did.

I said the prayers to welcome the soul to heaven, anointed the body, and kissed his very cold cheek.

The day of the funeral, a storm took all the autumn leaves from the old maples in the cemetery. The funeral was the plain Book of Common Prayer service. I walked up the aisle with Lars, not as the love of the heart I had become to him, but as his priest. It had been a pure love; and though I was sorrowful, I knew he had borne my love to heaven, and offered it at the throne of God. A chaste, noble love; the truest love.

We buried him among his family and friends, while his surviving nieces and nephews stood at graveside. I picked up a handful of damp grave soil to begin the words, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I stopped, looked across the grave at a young niece, and warned her, “You will put out that cigarette right now, Miss, and show your uncle some respect. You will not smoke in my cemetery.”

The cigarette was stubbed out with an annoyed sigh. In a strong voice I finished the office. A few roses were cast into the grave as the casket was lowered. The congregation hurried back to the church hall for coffee and tea. I stood at the head of the grave as the hole was filled.

“Goodbye, Lars,” I said. “I love you. I will see you again.”

Hetty, Here and Gone

Old Saviour Church

* This is copied and modified from my previous blog, “Anglican, Plain.” Again, this is about a real person in a parish where I served a few years ago. When I write about these former parishioners, I don’t use their real names, although it is impossible to change the setting in which I met them. Those readers who live in the locations where these anecdotes took place may recognize the people. Your experience with these people may have been different. Please respect the privacy of their families if you think you recognize of whom I write.*

Hetty lived in the community where I was pastor. She was a recurring name on every visiting list left by my predecessors.  She was just about sixty years old. I don’t think she had ever had an income-producing job in her life. Her days had revolved around caring for her mother since she was young. She was a prolific knitter. It provided a supplement to her tiny disability pension and gave her a few treats in her quiet life.

She had never married. She had been born outside wedlock. Her mother, as far as I knew, had never married, and Hetty was an only child. The extended family had lived on a hardscrabble farm on the edge of the settlement.  They had been late immigrants, and the land they had obtained was swampy and cedar-choked. It wasn’t much of a farm to support several brothers and a sister, and then a single child. Hetty had a photo of herself as a child, sitting amongst her extended family. She had a pet chicken on her lap.

She was rather like a plump little hen herself. When I met her, she was trimmed down from being a very plump hen indeed. She still had the broody figure, and she habitually slumped forward in her chair and when walking, a result, I think, of a lifetime of sitting and encroaching arthritis. She would tuck her arms back along her sides, a habit from knitting, which  enhanced the hen-like appearance. Her eyes were bright, and her hair, growing back after chemotherapy, was a dark shock that usually stood up in three directions, like a hen’s comb. She was a survivor of breast cancer. The cancer diagnosis and treatment had come to define her life.

She had a hoarse, unmodulated voice. It would soar in volume as she talked, relating one of her many anecdotes. She was animated when she recounted her many doctors’ appointments, how the doctors were so nice to her, how they truly cared, how loved and supported she felt. Except for Doctor Margaret, who could do no right, being a woman doctor. I wouldn’t say Hetty was a hypochondriac. It was just that for the first time in her life, people took care of her. She loved all her (male) doctors greatly. I don’t know if they were appreciative of her love, but in her own way, it was innocent and faithful.

I called on her at least once a month. She did not drive, so she was dependent on neighbours and friends for shopping and entertainment. She wasn’t a television watcher. I suspected that she couldn’t follow the plots of soap operas or dramas, and her sense of humour was old world.  English was not her first language. She spoke Danish all her life, with enough cousins and neighbours who also spoke it that she did not lose her language skill.

Hetty lived in a house trailer, or a mini-home as they are called there, which had been purchased with insurance money after the family homestead had burned, leaving her and her mother homeless. It was circa 1976, outfitted with a complete kit of furniture. I had lived in a similar model about 1978, so I recognized it. Almost thirty years later, she still had all the original, pathetic-quality furnishings and curtains. Then she had added knick-knack shelves, whatnot tables, slim wobbly bookcases, hassocks, baskets of yarn, folding trays and most of the contents carried by W.W. Woolworth’s Five and Dime in Presque Isle. She loved a good rummage or garage sale. The little house was overheated and usually smelled of hot cooking fat. It was clean, as clean as rotating Red Cross caregivers could get it. She was a great favourite with her caregivers, as she was almost always sunny and pleasant, generous and sentimental. Only once did I ever hear her speak harshly of someone who had hurt her feelings, and it was with a great deal of sorrow as well as a bit of satisfaction in having had the last word. She cried quickly and copiously. I took care to turn the conversation away from morbid subjects, though she had a relish for the details of horrible illnesses and injuries.

Her favourite entertainment was live country music. A neighbouring church had a music night once a week in their parish hall. She was a regular. Someone would pick her up on their way by, and she sat there, week after week, tapping her feet, enjoying the hot sweet tea and cookies that were the regular fare. I believe she used to dance; it wasn’t anything I ever witnessed. I’d say her next favourite  activity was a good funeral. My Danish congregants had a healthy and earthy attitude to death. They mourned their loss, but a history of famine, forced immigration, hardship in the new world, and the loss of children to epidemics, old people to pneumonias, and young people to accidents made them aware of death in our lives, daily. Cancers are common. Fatalities in the fields or woods and on the roads and trails were a yearly occurrence. We clergy officiated a lot of funerals. Good funeral sermons and some favourite music of both the modern gospel and antique Danish hymnal were expected. The cemetery burial ended with a traditional Danish hymn sung a capella. Our local funeral director, although not Danish, would lead it if no one else had the voice for it.

The funeral lunch was not neglected. A table of traditional foods was provided by the ladies of the parish. (We had one male cook amongst us, but he was kept in reserve for smorgasbords and fund-raisers where Danish sausage and other hearty meat specialties are required.) Hetty was a society matron at funeral lunches. She found herself a good seat, walking cane beside her, and we fetched her plates of sandwiches, delicate Danish creations of good homemade bread, sweet butter, sandwich meats and thin sliced vegetables and pickles, followed by another plate or two of the delicious, cardamom-scented and otherworldly cookies that only Scandinavians can produce. (I have acquired the knack of peparkakor, a spicy molasses biscuit.)

Hetty called me occasionally. She had need of a few groceries at the end of the month; she needed a new (to her) refrigerator, so would I contact the right people for that; she hadn’t seen me in a  while and I’d left a card in the door while she was out. She had a bitter pride when she had to ask for help. People offered and she accepted. She might ask a favour but she posed it as if she would, when possible, reciprocate. She could not reciprocate with me. Not that it mattered. I am pretty nonchalant about helping people in need. But I could see the frown, the incipient tear when she realized that she was indeed bitterly poor, and she had to go to the church for help. She had to ask me. She liked me, but I was not the same as the wonderful priests in the past, Father Such, Canon Wonderful, Mr. Greatheart. I was just little Pastor Julie. She didn’t hold it against me, but my stature did not cast the same impressive shadow.

She called me from the local hospital one day. She had been admitted for surgery. She had a terrible hernia. I don’t know what caused it. I suspect a lifetime of poor health and inadequate diet was the culprit. I went in immediately to see her before the procedure. She was a fragile patient, the body weakened by cancer and its cure. It really was the worst rupture I had seen in a few years of chaplaincy and hospital ministry. Her skin had split. She was in pain, but she joked a bit about it, poking her finger delicately around the damaged navel. She had no inhibition in sharing scars and wounds with me, nor was I ever shocked by such. Ten years of shepherding had submerged forever any remaining squeamishness that had survived motherhood.

The hernia was repaired, but her condition worsened. She was taken to the big hospital in St. John, far from home. I went down to see her in the midst of her diagnostic routine.

“They got me here in Oncology,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

“What is your doctor’s plan?”

“X-rays and tests and ultrasound. But why am I in Oncology? That means Cancer.”

“Yes, it does.”

She talked a bit randomly about her cousins coming to visit, and gifts they had brought, and what the food was like. She liked her roommate. She liked the nurses.

She got quiet. I sat in the pink visitor’s chair and waited.

“Do you think I got cancer again?” she asked.

“What does your doctor say?”

“Nothing, He said it was tests.”

She got quiet again. “I got cancer again. That’s why I’m here. The medicine stuff is chemo.”

She started to cry. I held her hand.

“Can you go ask?” she said to me.

I went to the nurses’ station. I asked if someone could explain Hetty’s medical treatment to her. They arranged for a doctor to come in later.

I told her this. She shook her head.  “It’s cancer. I know it. That’s why they got me here.”

“Yes, I think so.”

She covered her face and cried. Finally, she wiped her eyes and said. “I kept you a while. It’s a long drive home. My cousin will be in soon, really. I’ll be okay.” I said a prayer and left her.

She was transferred back to the local hospital. She slowly descended into more pain. Morphine didn’t help. The cancer was in her spine. Neighbours helped in the hospital, sitting with her, getting her comfortable, bringing her little treats as long as she could tolerate food. Her property had to be sold; she talked about the nursing home. She thought she would like it.

I sat a few spells with her. She liked to have me close when she was conscious, but that was getting rare. Her eyes would glaze as she lay half-reclining in the bed, propped with pillows. She would moan softly sometimes. She started talking to someone who wasn’t in the room. “What is she saying?” asked a caregiver who didn’t speak Danish.

“She’s talking to her mother. She’s saying, mother, help me, come get me.”

We looked at each other with troubled eyes, then back at the place by the window Hetty seemed to be addressing.

She died soon after that.

She had a good Anglican funeral, in the church.

I walked up the aisle ahead of the coffin, in my black cassock and white surplice.

“I am the resurrection and the life , saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth…”

Her cousin gave a eulogy. The lessons were read, I gave a sermon. We went out to the cemetery. She was laid next to her mother. “I’ve arranged for stones,” her cousin said. “For her, her mother, and her uncles. The family could never afford them. I can do that for her now. It’s the last thing we can give her.”

And so it is. The last good words to be spoken, the last gift, the hope of the resurrection.

“Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

La Vie en Rose

(For those reading this who were in my last parish: In order to protect the privacy of families there, I have obscured the location, names and some details. The passage is true, but don’t try too hard to ascribe all attributes to any one neighbour, as some of the details are compounded from more than one person.)

Marietta was a patient in the hospital where I was chaplain. Her Danish last name was common in my parish, but I did not recognize her. She was asleep when I went to her room, oxygen hissing into her nostrils. I didn’t wake her. She was suffering from pneumonia, not uncommon in sedentary seniors in the winter-clad mountains of eastern Canada. I said a prayer at bedside, then tracked down the chief of nursing. Marietta looked so frail. I checked the chart – she was just 70 years old, but her pale, sparse hair and delicate frame made her look both ancient and childlike.

I asked Penny, the head nurse, about the patient. “She’s listed as being in Father Nick’s parish, but I called him and he doesn’t know her.”

“Yes, he does. But he may not know her name.”

I waited. There was a story, and Penny would have to get to it in her own way.

“She’s really out of your parish, but she lives at Riverside Manor now.”

“That’s in Nick’s parish.”

“Yes, but you know her sons. Kyle and Kelvin.”

“Oh, yes. The Dall twins. I didn’t realize their mother was still living.”

“They don’t talk of her much. Marietta showed signs of dementia fairly young, I think. She’s perfectly sweet and harmless, but she got to wandering, so she needed supervised care. Did you look at her chart?”

“Just to check her address and age.”

“She is younger than she looks. She is a bit of a pet here, and at the Manor.  She is very gentle. She doesn’t remember anyone individually anymore, but she still speaks, and seems to think everyone is a friend. She has five children.”

I tried to picture that tiny body younger and stronger, pregnant with twins. “I take it there is no husband now.”

“He died a few years ago. He was a big man, died of a heart attack. He was quite a bit older, too, if I remember. He’s buried in your cemetery.”

My cemetery had many burials, dating back more than one hundred years.  I most certainly did not have the placement of every stone memorized. The Danish cemeteries in the mountains along the border were neat garden-like spots. This particular cemetery was my back lawn. I kept my sheep in the field at the back of the cemetery. They would occasionally break fence early in the morning, wandering through the misty stones like spirits.

A Danish cemetery is a happy, pleasant garden. Flowers, shrubbery, well-kept grass. Stones are leveled every spring, cleaned, and fussed about. Family meet there for picnics. I had a picnic table placed behind the church for that reason. The Shetland sheep loved to get visitors, and would gently call when people would walk down the little gravel road. They expected snacks.

I found the cemetery map back at the church, and paced down to old Viggo Dall’s grave. He had been some twenty years older than Marietta. By the dates on the stone, it looked as if they had married when she was seventeen. I stared pensively at the monument, trying to imagine what life would have been like for a Danish speaking child-bride in the mountains fifty or sixty years before. There was then no electricity in the outlying parts of the settlement, and very few telephones. Roads weren’t paved. Births were usually at home; houses were heated by wood-burning stoves that served for cooking and heating water as well. Everyone worked in the fields, planting and picking potatoes, scything and stooking barley, oats and wheat, binding hay and straw.

For most young women, especially those who spoke Danish as their first language, marriage was the only career choice, unless they were needed at home to care for younger siblings, an elderly grandparent, or to help a widowed parent. Those who had good English skills might go to work in a store, study office skills, or become a teacher. For the most part, though, the settlement was poor, agricultural, and Danish in language and culture.

I had grown up hearing Danish and Swedish spoken in the homes of friends, and my unique contribution to the Danish Anglican church was to hold bilingual services four times a year. We had a few copies of an Danish-language book of common prayer that dated to Victoria’s reign, translated from the 1662 prayer book by the SPCK, The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. I produced a parallel Danish-English service booklet. We sang Danish hymns, led by Elena, our Danish-speaking concertina player, and the lessons were read in Danish. The gospel and the sermon were in English. I would read the Danish prayers phonetically, and the parishioners told me I had a Copenhagen accent.

Once Marietta was discharged from the hospital, I visited her at the manor, a home-like place. She was sitting in a rocking chair, a pink fleece blanket over her knees, a pink headband holding back her spare white hair. She looked at me through thick, pink rimmed glasses. She was wearing a pink sweater over a pink print housecoat. She was holding a  little book with a spiral binding.

I pulled up a chair and sat beside her, “Marietta, do you remember me from the hospital?”

She smiled gently.

“I came to visit you.”

She smiled again, and reached over to hold my hand. I wondered if she didn’t remember English. I had seen it happen before in my elderly parishioners.

“Goddag,” I said. “Hvordan går det?”

She only smiled.

She held up the book. It was a notebook style calendar. “Cat,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she was speaking English or Danish; the word sounds the same. Kat, cat. The book was pictures of kittens.

“Kitten,” I said.

“Killing,” she said, the Danish word for kitten. Oh, then we were speaking Danish. And I had just about exhausted my vocabulary.

via fanpop

I turned the pages of the book, saying things like, “Oh, three cats. A yellow cat.” She would stroke the photos with a finger, as if she was petting the kittens. When we came to the end of the book, I asked if she wanted to say a prayer. I used the Lord’s Prayer in English, as I had not memorized it in Danish.

The next time I went to visit, I brought along the Lord’s Prayer in Danish, and home communion. “Does she undertsand about communion still?” I asked her caregiver.

“Yes, Father Nick gave her communion last month. She knows what to do.”

We looked at the kittens. We said the Lord’s Prayer, or rather, I read it in Danish and she whispered to herself.

Fader vor, du som er i himlene! Helliget blive dit navn, komme dit rige, ske din viljesom i himlen således også på jorden; giv os vort daglige brød,og forlad os vor skyld, som også vi forlader vore skyldnere, og led os ikke ind i fristelse,men fri os fra det onde. For dit er Riget og magten og æren i evighed. Amen.

I gave her communion, with the simplest words, “This is my body, take eat…”

As I was leaving, I asked the caregiver, “Is there anything she needs?”

“Oh. Pastor, I think she could use a new kitten book. She has worn that one to tissue paper. I’ve taped it three times.”

I found another kitten desk calendar on sale at Chapters; I coordinated communion and visits with Father Nick. Marietta’s family had fallen away in seeing her. I could sympathize. She never responded with more than a whispered “Cat.”

The frail body didn’t last much longer. She died quietly one night in December. Father Nick and I would co-preside at her funeral. Part of it would be in Danish. He and I would sing  “How Great Thou Art” as a duet.

I sat in Elena’s kitchen and discussed which Danish hymns to use. “Ja,” Elena said. ” Inga will play these two hymns, and ja, I will play the others.”

“Your children would be the same age as the Dall children,” I said. “Did you know Marietta?”

Elena gave that peculiar Dansk shrug. “Ja, but she was young more than me. I knew her, she was just a child. Oh, and with the babies, all the time.”

“It must have been a lot of work for such a young woman.”

Elena put her head to one side and crossed her arms. I got quiet and waited a minute or so, knowing that a confidence was about to be given.

“She was never more than a child. Ja, the old pastor did not want her married. But what was to become of her when her parents were gone? She always had the dolls, even when her children were born. And pink. She liked the pink, pink everything.”

Elena shrugged again and frowned. “It were not right, but it would have been more wrong if someone had gotten to her…”  I know that old expression. It meant that she might have suffered abuse or rape.

I sat at home with a glass of sherry that evening, writing the funeral sermon after the wake. The metal casket was pink. Marietta was laid out in a pink dress, with a pink bow in her hair. She held a pink toy cat. Pink roses stood at her head and foot. She was waked in the church, which saved her family the expense of the funeral parlor wake. I had closed the church doors after the funeral director had closed the casket. I was the last friend to see her peaceful face.

I struggled with the details of her quiet life. What had married life been like? Why had her husband waited until almost forty to marry a woman who could not be his equal? Had she been frightened by sex and childbirth? How had she managed to run a large household when her intellectual age had been no more than age eight?

Yet the community had not seen her as disabled, as anything but a different shade of normal. A family was raised, meals cooked, clothes sewn, floors washed. They got by.  Marietta had lived out her life in an almost medieval Danish culture. She had never known anything different.

“Don’t judge,” the inner voice cautions, instilled in the mind by years of pastoral training. “Take it as it is. Help where you can, when it is needed, and as it is wanted.”

So I preached on angels and gentle souls, on simple pleasures and quiet days. I let the questions go.

End of All Hope

Eddie lived on the family farm,, across the road from the family pier, from  where he had piloted the family fishing boat for many years. Eddie was a bachelor, the last male in his family. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer. It had started as pain, was thought to be cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis, but the battery of tests showed that it was full-blown metastasized cancer.

Meena had called me. I didn’t know Eddie. I knew the farm, with its covey of coops, ricks, and sties . It was a massive, gloomy Victorian monstrosity, gone to seed and windblown. The attached barn, with its labyrinth of sheds, garages and bays was an unpainted hazard waiting for a loose spark and a gale.

Meena had owned a fish shop at the pier for a couple of decades. Eddie sold fish to her. They got to be friends. Meena was our youth minister, my assistant at confirmation classes, a creative genius at crafts, and one of my best friends on the parish. She befriended everyone. Even shy, stammering Eddie.

I went to see Eddie in the hospital. He was in pain, yellow with jaundice, and he slowly told me his medical history. Never sick a day in his life. Then this wicked pain. Then he was vomiting, with bile in it, and he took a stitch that doubled him up. His appetite failed. He couldn’t work anymore.

How could it be cirrhosis? he muttered, pronouncing it shirr-hosis. He never drank, never took a drop. Uncle Fidd, who had raised him, was a wicked drinker. Eddie had promised his Aunt Meg he would never drink. He never had.

Cirrhosis can be hereditary, but cancer was so prevalent in the downshore stretch of the Bay that I spent a lot of time visiting in the hospital and conducting funerals. It was no wonder that shore dwellers contracted cancer and auto-immune diseases. A major smelter sat upshore at Dalhousie, discharging heavy metals and toxins into the water and air. My parishioners had spent their whole lives eating fish and lobster from the Bay, and breathing the downwind fumes. Many of them had worked in a paper and pulp factory, exposed to dioxins.

Eddie was sent home. A nurse would stop in once a day to check on his meds and give him an IV of fluids. I started visiting at least once a week. The house was unchanged since Uncle Fidd and Aunt Meg had died. The kitchen had a large black wood-burning stove, a narrow pantry with both a hand-pump and a tap, a refrigerator purchased about 1954. The big round table in the middle of the kitchen was covered with clashing plastic tablecloths. The necessities of a bachelor’s meals crowded the center of the table: Ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper, HP sauce, Worcestershire sauce, strawberry jam, butter. Three cats, of varying degrees of fitness and age, slept in armchairs and rockers by the bay window. An old yellow dog peered in through the screen door from the wood shed.

“Who took care of the animals when you were in hospital?” I asked. Eddie seemed to be the only tenant of the greying old house.

“Meena and her man.” Her man was Young Stan, Meena’s husband. There was an Old Stan, no kin, in the community. Overlapping names and identifying adjectives were as common as bad teeth.

I set the wooden box I carried on the table. “Would you like communion today?”

“I’ve never had communion.”

“What do you mean?”

“I ain’t never had communion.”

I rested my hands on the table top and looked across at him. “Are you baptized?”

“Yah, but never had the communion, the old father wouldn’t give it to me.”

“Why ever not?”

“I was cutting up in them religion classes to be confirmed, and he sent me out and told me not to come back.”

“so you weren’t confirmed?”

“Naw, so I couldn’t have the communion. I just sat at the back and never went forward. Then I started fishing the next year, so’s I stopped going to church.”

Most of the men my age and older had dropped out of school before grade eight. Many were completely illiterate. Most were functionally illiterate. Eddie had been taught to read by Aunt Meg, although he had left school at twelve to work on the farm, and then on the fishing boat.

Bay of Chaleur Ghost Ship

“You can have communion today.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes, I’m the priest here and I can say who gets communion.”

“I don’t have to be confirmed?”

“No, we don’t worry about that anymore.” And, I thought to myself, God forbid I should deny the sacraments to a dying man because of some impatient words Father Nonesuch said thirty years ago.

Eddie was re-admitted to the hospital, to the hospice unit. I met his sister there. I didn’t know he had a sister. Eddie insisted he was in hospice only because there weren’t any beds in oncology.

Sister – Sissy – and I had coffee in the hospital caff. She filled in the details. “Eddie didn’t ever marry. I did, got divorced. We only got each other. Mama was a single mother. I guess she and our dad never married. We thought he was dead, but it was just that he run off with someone and went to Manitoba. So we all moved in with Uncle Fidd and Aunt Meg. Aunt Meg would be my daddy’s sister. So they wasn’t real relatives. Mama did die young, too, I think her heart broke. Eddie and me stayed on at the farm. I went out to clean and wash, mind children. Eddie worked the farm and then the boat. Uncle Fidd was wicked hard on him, wicked hard. That boy couldn’t sit to his supper some nights for the whippings he took.”

I inwardly flinched. I tried to imagine the stammering, shy, animal-loving Eddie deserving a whipping. I could imagine an Uncle Fidd, small but farmer-strong, lashing an awkward boy with a birch switch, out in the woodshed.

“He’s dying, ain’t he?”

“Yes. ”

“He don’t want to believe it. But he knows. He called me last week, wanted me to get him a bottle of some strong liquor, thought he could drink himself to death. I didn’t, though.”

“He can’t drink himself to death. He’s never been a drinker, he’d just throw it up.”

I was concerned enough to leave a note for his doctor, though Eddie didn’t have long to wait. He died on Sunday morning, while I was in church, celebrating the eucharist.

Sissy had everything planned. She paid for the funeral. I went in to help arrange the wake, the service at the funeral chapel, and the burial.

The next morning I got a call from the funeral director.

“Mac won’t open that grave.”

“What is it now?”

“The old burial map shows that that grave has been used, and he’s sounded all over that plot that Fidd bought back in 1940, and it is full.”

“Well, who is buried next to Eddie’s mother?”

“It looks like an infant burial, back in the fifties. Yeah, we thought they’d be plenty of space, but we sounded everywehere and can’t find a spot. Mac is pretty upset.”

“Why this time?”

“He fell through into a grave.”

J. Knight, 1877

I met Mac at the cemetery. There was collapsed turf over the grave in question. “I went straight through. I went over to Carl’s, got the old map, and sure enough, some babies were buried here.”

I got out my mobile and called Sissy at home. “We have a problem. Mac says there are babies buried next to your mother.”

“Oh yeah, so that’s where they were buried. I remember now, they was premature, stillborn, before Eddie. They was just tiny, weren’t even buried in proper coffins, just little pine boxes. You tell Mac I want Eddie next to Mama.”

I told Mac. He grumbled, “What if I bring up bones or something?”

“Then you call me right away, and I’ll come out and we’ll rebury them. I doubt you’ll find anything after forty years gone. Babies that young, and stillborn – they are mostly cartilage and there was no embalming. They are all dust now.”

The real mystery was who else was buried in the plot. There was just the one stone, with the few family names on it. Fidd and Meg had no children of their own. It was a double plot, room for eight burials. And as far as we knew, there should be only three – now four – burials in it. I went to Hank’s house with Tim Horton’s coffee and doughnuts. He was the oldest member of that parish, andhad  been the cemetery warden back in the war years. He had known old Fidd.

“Mmm, hmm, yes, indeed, my girl,” he started. “Oh, yes, old Fidd, he was wicked wayward. He would get those orphans in to help on the farm, besides Eddie and Sissy. He would go up to the rail depot and bring back hobos and bums, or pick up sailors coming off the ships, load them into an old wagon, and promise them room and board and a couple of dollars. He made the poteen himself, kept them drunk most evenings. Yeah, that’s what he did, and some of them died there. I don’t know how many. Fidd would nail together a coffin, take ‘im down the road to Sand Hill, and bury them. Never called the priest or nothing. He was tight as a haddock’s ars…bumhole.”

Sissy and I stood over Eddie’s grave after everyone else had left for the funeral lunch. “I expected we would both be buried with Mama,” she said. “But no, it’s fine that Eddie is. I’ll get myself a little plot down a way. It’s right. It was the only love he ever knew.”

Farm Funeral 1930s, infomercantile

Brothers of the Grave

Two middle-aged bachelor brothers lived next door to Christ Church. They kept a small farm. I think they made a bare living off hay and turnips. They were, as far as I could tell, indistinguishable from each other. They had names but I could never remember which was which. They were fairly short, fairly round, and wore layers of dirty odd clothing summer and winter.

Their most distinguishing feature was that they spoke a private language. On the rare occasions when I would have to encounter one or both of them, I had to have a local interpreter. I suspect the language they spoke was a proprietary blend of Irish Gaelic, English and custom-designed words. It was sibilant and full of soft vowels.  I could not make out one word in their conversations that I could understand. Most people couldn’t. I had two elderly parishioners who had known the brothers all their lives, and were used to them, and could translate. The brothers understood me in English, but never answered except in this dooryard patois.

The brothers knew who I was, certainly. I don’t know if they recognized my truck or me when I drove to the church. If one or both were outside, feeding their barrel-shaped pony, or loading mysterious odds and ends into an old station wagon, they would wave, if the motion they made could be called that. They would suddenly raise one arm, straight up from the shoulder, the hand held above the head in an open palm salute. I would return it with my silly, involuntary, little girl wave, hand palm out at shoulder height, wiggled back and forth rapidly. They would shout a greeting that sounded like  “Hoo!” I would nod and shout “Hi! Hello!” back at them.

They dug the graves in Christ Church Cemetery, the forlorn, windswept burial ground of their ancestors. The cliff face was dissolving into the bay, a foot or two each year. Storms sometimes clawed off swaths by the yard. The outlying white board fence was gone, and there seemed no reason to replace it, as the sea encroached more each season.

Bridie was dying. She had been dying for three years, her once robust housewifely body eroded by metastasized breast cancer. She had been a plump little hen, but in her last days was no bigger than a sparrow chick. Her daughter called me to the house one afternoon. Bridie was sitting on the couch in coat and hat, her handbag clutched on her lap. Her mouth was a thin line of discontent, the grey eyes magnified with unspilled tears.

“Mom is going to the hospital,” Lona explained. “We can’t get the pain under control at home.”

I had been a chaplain in an oncology unit. I knew what that meant. I knelt on the floor beside Bridie. “How do you feel about this?” I asked.

“I don’t want to go, but I’ve got no choice, it seems.” She snapped the words out, avoiding her daughter’s eye.

Her helpless anger and the unceasing pain were like lightening in the room. Her husband, Richard, came in from the yard and he and Lona helped Bridie to her feet, gently supporting her out the kitchen door, down the steps, and into the waiting car. I followed behind with her suitcase, shutting the door behind me. I put the suitcase in the trunk, kissed Bridie through the open window, and said I would see her at the hospital the next day.

I saw her every day that week, even if it were for a few minutes. I gave her communion, with her daughter at her side, when she was too weak to sit or speak. I dipped the wafer in the wine, touched it to her lips, and handed it to her daughter to consume. The cancer was in her bones, in her lungs, in her liver and kidneys. She barely smiled at me in her misery of morphine and unrelenting red pain. I never saw her alive again.

Lona called me on my cell phone at the end of the week. “Mom is slipping away, ” she said. “It won’t be long.”

I was in the barn. I went back to the rectory, changed from barn jacket and overalls into black skirt and clergy shirt, put on the black coat and drove the 25 miles to the hospital.

Dusk settling in the northern autumn air, Lona met me in the parking lot. Her father was already in the car. “She’s gone, ” she said. “I know there are things for you to do. I’d best take Dad home now.”

The nurse let me into the closed hospice room. Bridie lay on the bed, arms laid out beside her wasted body. The IVs were gone, though the needle holes were still apparent. Her eyes were half-closed, her mouth gaped, her false teeth already out. I gently pushed the eyelids closed. Warmth was still in her body. The funeral director would take care of the rest. The little mouth, once smiling and full of soft words, was open with a ghastly silent scream, a bit unnerving as I said the words.

“O ALMIGHTY God, with whom do live the spirits of just men made perfect, after they are delivered from their earthly prisons: We humbly commend the soul of this thy servant…”

Bridie had planned her funeral. Her daughter would speak, her brothers would sing, the bishop-elect, husband to Bridie’s cousin, would celebrate the funeral communion with me. Bridie – now Bridget again in the parish books – would be buried with her husband’s ancestors, across the road from the church, in Christ Church Cemetery.

I informed the wardens of the date of the funeral, and that the grave needed to be opened. And then I hit a snag, a big snag, the biggest snag one can hit at a funeral.

“The boys won’t open the grave,” one warden informed me. “I sent my husband to talk to them, and they said the last grave they would ever dig was Mortimer O’Reilly’s. And he is buried.”

I knew that. It had been my first funeral in the parish.

“Can we get Mac?” Mac did the grave duties at Sand Hill.

“No, he won’t set foot in Christ Church.”

“Even if I ask?”

She sniffed. No, not even if I asked.

I called the other warden. Now, there is a subtext to anything I write about this parish, and that is The Other Warden. An imposing  good half foot taller than me, and weighing about twice my body weight, she surveyed the church, the parish, the world, and my pulpit with a cold and calculating eye. She had a hawk-like frown above a prominent chin, and with tightly curled bleached hair, she looked like a bird of prey poised to swoop. I was the usual rabbit she snatched squealing from the charred fields that were parish council meetings.

I secretly named her Mrs. Proudie, after the bishop’s wife in Anthony’s Trollope’s Barchester novels.

She informed me that opening the grave was Joe Wainwright’s duty to arrange, not hers. He was cemetery warden.

He was away, in the States, with sick family.

She could not be expected to arrange for a burial.

I tried a desperate measure. “But Bridie is your cousin!”

She was certain, I was informed, that Bridie was not a close cousin in any way, and that was by marriage only, on her mother’s side.

I called the funeral director. “I’ve got no one down that way.”

“What about Mac?”

“Mac won’t set foot in Christ Church.”

I called The First Warden. She did not answer. I called The Other Warden again. “I can’t find a soul to do this. You are a warden. It is up to you to arrange this.”

“I do not intend to do any such thing.”

“What do you want me to do? Dig it myself?”

“You may if you wish.” And she rang off the line.

I went to the garage to see if I had an appropriate spade. Then I went back into the house and called Lona.

“I can’t get anyone to open your mother’s grave.”

She sighed.

“Joe is away, the boys won’t do it, and Mrs…I mean, Susan said I might as well do it myself.”

“Not to worry, I’ll call my uncles.”

I went by the cemetery the day of the funeral. Two tocqued and bearded heads were visible in the family plot, just at ground level. Gravel and sand flew up into a pile at graveside. I went into the church lot and found the bishop-elect parking his car behind the building.

We carried our vestments into the church. There was to be a funeral communion, and there was nothing on the altar. I began pulling drawers open in the sacristy while he hung up alb and chasuble. We found linen and candles, paten and chalice. I drove back to the rectory for wine. Returning, I found him unfurling a parament. What we thought was a purificator, for wiping the rim of the chalice, was something the size of a banquet tablecloth. We desperately dug through drawers and cupboards, and assembled something like the proper kit for a eucharist.

Mrs. Proudie tacked into church, all yards under full sail. She went to shake hands with the bishop-elect. I drew her aside and hissed, “Not anything was ready!”

She looked down her pinched nose at me. “That is Anna Wainwirght’s job, not mine.”

“You knew she was away!”

“Someone set up the altar.” She deliberately crossed my bows and took her place in a front pew, positioning a substantial handbag like a cannon aimed right at me.

It was a lovely funeral.  I stayed at the cemetery after the committal of the body, while Bridie’s brothers filled in the grave. We drove together to Bridie’s house.

I found the bishop-elect in the kitchen, which is a good place for a bishop of Irish descent. Bridie’s oldest brother found the  bottle of Jameson over the refrigerator, and we had a silent round, in Bridie’s memory.

Grave Goods

These fleeting charms of earth
Farewell, your springs of joy are dry
My soul now seeks another home
A brighter world on high

I’m a long time travelling here below
I’m a long time travelling away from home
I’m a long time travelling here below
To lay this body down

Grey, black, white headstones, the occasional earthy red granite. Some old obelisks, mostly whitewashed and moldy tablets, often broken with age, weather and vandalism. A very few metal-work crosses. A maritime cemetery, especially in the poor rural north, doesn’t have a lot of variety or interest. They were usually rather pathetic, thin ghosts of monuments, testimony to poverty, early death, a life lived on the fraying edge of a cold, windswept coastline.

Yet, despite the rigours of a northern life, the living were reluctant to let the dead go. In the Swedish community across the border in Maine, funerals still included grave goods. A thousand years of Christianity, five hundred of tough-minded Lutheran piety, and they still buried their dead with tokens. A miniature tractor, a favourite book, a stuffed animal, food and spirits. I was scandalized, frankly, when I first saw this. It was barely a step away from sacrifice of livestock, wild animals, or wives. There is a scene in the Thirteenth Warrior,  (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120657/plotsummary) that shows this pagan practice. A concubine offers herself to be burned on the funeral boat of a Viking chieftain; the prayer she recites is very moving. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5REaxl15uI; the scene begins at 07:00.)

I am an austere Christian. I live a Plain life, almost monastic. If anything, I have a theology that one needs very little on this earth, because we are meant for another Kingdom. The possessions of this world weigh us down, keep us focused on the short term distractions of Satan’s world. I do not understand grave goods. God provides all we will need in the life of the world to come.

It is incongruent to walk into an old maritime cemetery and find, besides the pathetic plastic floral tributes dropped like litter on the graves, balloons, birdbaths, gazing balls, toys and expensive floral tributes on a grave. It seems not only incongruous, but surreal. Graves heaped with funeral wreaths immediately after the burial, in lieu of turf, are common enough. But all the dizzying colours and tributes of a birthday party are strangely frightening.

Does the family expect that the deceased will come back for the party? A disturbing image of a pink-clad girl child, shrivelled in death, sitting among the funerary gifts, has come to the dark side of my mind as I stood over such a grave.

It was in Sand Hill Cemetery.  If ever there was a crossroads of life, death and pitiful disappointment, Sand Hill was it. It is an ugly disaster of a burying ground, charmless. It varied between hot and mosquito-ridden, through mournfully but not romantically mist-covered, to wind-whipped and sleet-clad. I hinted at every interment there that the parish needed to buy another property for future burials, but I might as well have shouted my thoughts to the sandstone cliffs  slowly crumbling into the Bay of Chaleur.

When I spotted the pink and purple balloon hovering over the expensive pink marble monument, I stopped there, on the graveled drive, my heart beating faster. It was outrageous. It frightened me. Suddenly, the world was all wrong.

I approached slowly, cautiously, trying to angle down the path so that I could face whatever was hiding behind the headstone. I had a horrible expectation that a clown was crouched there,w aiting for me to walk past. I don’t like clowns.

I squinted at the grave from the gravel path. Nothing was crouching there…no, except for – “Oh, God,” I whispered to myself. “What is that?”

I am, most of the time, a fearless person. Snakes, spiders, bears, dark forests – I rush in where angels fear to tread. But this – it looked like a mummified baby, in christening dress and cap.

Why did it have a balloon?

I reasoned that if it was, indeed, a dead, disinterred infant, it couldn’t hurt me. If it was something worse, I was armed with prayer and a clergy collar. And car keys. And a pretty good turn of speed for a woman in her forties.

I stalked through the gravestones, heart thudding.

It was a baby doll, face sun-crazed, christening outfit bleached and ragged from the elements. There were ceramic cats, crystals, glass hearts and even rags of birthday cards on the plinth of the stone. I again whispered, “Oh, God! What is this?”

It looked like votive offerings. In this Irish parish, and in my Scots-Irish mind, this was possible. A witch? A restless spirit? I got closer.

A framed portrait, of a blonde-haired girl. Dates on the stone: she had died at the age of nine. Scripture and a teddy bear engraved next to her name, her parents’ names, and the motto, “Never gone from our hearts.”

Nine years had passed.

There was a back story. It doesn’t matter what it is. These parents, her grandparents, aunts and uncles – all continued to live under her death. There were other children. They lived in the shadow of the child who would never have a future in this world.

I found the particulars through people I trusted in the church, and I approached the grandparents. The parents had left the church, wouldn’t see me. No one saw any problem. They could not hear me through the prison walls of their grief. That grief was a changeling. They had accepted a cold, warped memory into their home in exchange for their lost child.

I prayed at the child’s grave occasionally, on yet another of my hopeless expeditions into the byzantine maze that was Sand Hill Cemetery, not for her little soul, which I was confident was with her Saviour, but for the family, oppressed by the demon they had adopted.

Family Secrets

Sand Hill Cemetery was my least favourite burial ground. It was chaotic, ugly and oh, yes – sandy. Its plot map was a secret passed from one old man to a middle-aged man, who then grew old, and tried to impart his knowledge to another generation. It had all the romantic peace of a highway divider. Internecine quarrels erupted over who had rights to which plot.

Considering the crowding in the cemetery, and the refusal to move future burials elsewhere, I suggested a columbarium. This is a monument or wall, usually stone, at least on the face, with niches for cremains – human ashes, the result of cremation. It is space efficient, sanitary, and the niches clearly delineated. Columbaria are designed so that flower vases can be attached, if desired. Each occupied niche is marked clearly with the personal information of the deceased. It is an economical alternative to an expensive casket, burial plot and headstone.

The parish council refused to consider it. Cremation, in their old world Irish minds, was pagan at worst, uncaring at best. They did not want the family to think of them as the sort of son or daughter who would just have Mother burned. Explaining that the church allows for it, that it just speeds up the natural process, that it is a money saving alternative to traditional funeral practices, all fell on stopped ears.

They loved traditional funerals. They loved the Anglican service – Book of Common Prayer only, none of that Alternative Services thing – they loved the traditional music, they loved the funeral lunch and the long processions from church to grave. They compared floral tributes. “Well, I think Gussy could have sent a better bouquet than that for her aunt. She certainly laid out enough for Uncle Ted.”  “I think Gladys’s flowers were the nicest, though, with all those red carnations.” “Hmph, she could  have afforded roses.”

The traditional dead spread, or funeral lunch, was considered necessary. Anyone who did not entertain the hundred or more people who showed up for even a weekday funeral was considered low and mean, as in cheap. When one frail elderly widow was not up for the rigors of the funeral lunch, and her citified children decided to skip the tradition entirely, words were said. “Low” and “mean” were included, as in, “Your father was never so low and mean about anything.” And this was true – he had been a generous, helpful, good-humoured man. So the ladies (or the girls, as they referred to themselves, and I could not use that term for them as too familiar) whipped together a regular dead spread at the parish hall, and although only the two older adult children attended, and not the widow and her youngest daughter, it was considered appropriately successful.

The dead spread was finger sandwiches of egg, tuna, cream cheese (with olives or maraschino cherries) or salmon blended with…something. I don’t know what, because one taste told me I didn’t need to know, as I would never eat another. There were cookies, slices of banana, pumpkin or lemon bread. Copious amounts of tea were brewed, with a pot of coffee. Bread and cheese were laid out in pretty patterns. A flask of whisky made the rounds in the parking lot, among the pallbearers and close male family. Weather and fishing were discussed among the men, gardens and grandchildren among the women. I would have a cup of tea (the coffee was usually horrendous,) sit with the family for a while, and then leave, as these affairs often stretched on until the food and tea were gone, a good two hours or more.

It seemed that the Sand Hill burials were always a problem. After the third one, I made it a practice to call the grave digger the day before the funeral to make sure we had a grave, and that it would be accessible.

We buried Pearl at Sand Hill, after she had spent the last three years of her life in a nursing home. Pearl had loved the nursing home. She had spent most of her life bearing and caring for fourteen children and a demanding, abusive husband. When she was finally weak enough to require constant care, she had readily agreed to a managed facility. Pearl  enjoyed the attention, the meals made for her and brought to her if she chose, the company at hand. It was like a vacation to her after decades on a hardscrabble, sour-soil farm in the north, cleaning, washing, baking, and then starting all over again. Pearl was of an age where she had gone out in the fields to work beside her husband, she directing the plow behind a weather-beaten work horse, a baby tied in a shawl at her breast, the little ones trailing behind her. When Pearl would find herself pregnant again, she would open the windows and start throwing the contents of her dresser and closet out into the yard, as if desperately trying to escape with what she could carry.

Pearl’s burial sparked one of those family quarrels about the burial plot. Typical of poor families, they had bought a small plot with what money they had, sometime back in the 1940s, for a mother or father or child. Other graves were made on its borders, so there was no room for immediate family members to buy near the family stone. I got a call from the funeral director about it.

“I can’t put Pearl next to Liam.”

“Who is buried in her place?” It crossed my mind that Liam, the old scoundrel, had somehow contrived this, although he had been dead 20 years.

“I don’t know. Probably a child. When we sounded we found what seems to be a small casket.” Sounding with a long brass rod driven into the ground until it hit something or went deeper than four feet was standard practice at Sand Hill.

“Have you talked to the family yet?” I asked.

“Yes, they think it was a child who died in the 1950s. I can’t find any record.  The son wants me to go ahead and open the grave, but Mac won’t do it. The casket seems to be solid, so I’m saying he’s right. Then the daughter wants me to put Mom on top of Dad.”

I banished the horrifying and incorrect image that crept into my brain.

“If that is a possibility, put her in with the child.”

“Well, it isn’t going to happen either way. Mac won’t open a grave that has a burial in it already.”

Mac was the superstitious and somewhat squeamish grave digger. He was quite in awe of me. I would appear in black cassock and white surplice, soundly shod in thick boots, say the words, stand by as he back-filled the grave, and disappear. He never saw me any other time, as he was a Roman Catholic. I was this ephemeral faerie, drifting in and out of reality, appearing only for the dead. I was the bane of his own priest’s life, my presence barely acknowledged at clergy meetings. Father Dupres once barked at me in a crowded arena, where I had the audacity to wear my clerical collar, “What is this outfit? What are you?”

I arranged to meet the eldest of Pearl’s children at the cemetery that evening. In a light rain, prophesied to be a heavy rain by the interment, we looked at the family plot. Mac had flagged the newly found burial. Neither of the adult children could recall what sibling may have been buried there. They hinted that there may have been a child born before the marriage who lived but a couple of years, or it may have been a sibling born immediately after them who  had died before school age, but they simply couldn’t recall, nor could they find any mention of another child. We left it as a mystery.

They discussed whether their mother’s casket would fit between two other burials, but I explained that modern caskets are larger than the caskets of days past, and it would be impossible to shoehorn vault and casket in a narrow space.

I then took them to another small plot, on the edge of the cemetery. A crabapple tree bloomed over it. “We thought this might be a good alternative for Pearl,” I explained.

They stood at the foot. Mist filled the hollows. The sweet smell of apple blossom settled over us.

“Look,” the daughter said. “It’s right next to Jeannette.” She looked up at me. “She was Mum’s best friend. They were inseparable. Mum never got over her death.”

We contemplated the silent grave.

“All right, ” the son said. “This is good. Mum would be happier next to Jeannette than she ever would have been next to Dad.”

All families have secrets. They may be big, frightening secrets that take decades to unravel, if they are ever unknotted from the souls of the children. Some families have small, quiet secrets. Some have both, and the grave may be the last place they are kept.