As the preacher steps forward to shake hands with the son seated in the front row, I hear the clang, clang, clang of the tent against it’s metal poles. The sound is welcome amidst the silence which followed the closing prayer over the grave. The casket has yet to be lowered, but we cannot avoid that task much longer. I follow him so I can have a quick discussion with the family before we continue our work for the burial. I must ask them if they prefer to stay seated or if they would rather go on to the lunch waiting for them before we start.
This particular conversation takes many forms depending on the circumstances, but it is always one of high honor.
Ignoring the many eyes fixed on me as I make my way forward, I bend down to address the front row. One knee usually hits the ground, and I choose to plant it there momentarily. My position allows me a new perspective. Instead of standing off to the side, praying the rain holds off or the flowers don’t topple over, I am now humbled, intent, concerned about the emotions and the people right in front of me. There are almost always tears to face. Sometimes my words are met with blank stares and I feel the need to slowly repeat myself.
The finality of the moment is weighty. It’s importance is not lost on me. My knee rests until an answer is given, and I stand to make an announcement of the verdict.
There is a palpable sense of dread in the air. Some eyes in the crowd look almost scared. I am never sure if they fear having to stand witness to the burial or if they fear being asked to leave.
As I stand, I instinctively reach to brush off my knee. Dust clings there as if to remind me I am still stuck here on this earth. There is something which approaches holy that happens as I stand between the living and the dead; between the now and the not yet. I may be echoing author Thomas Lynch by saying, “We’ve come as far as we can go…”
It’s true: there is not much left to do. This body will be committed back to the earth on which we stand. I cannot help but think, however, there is so much more yet to be learned. Whether that earth is covered by artificial turf or if it is washed over by ocean waves lapping the seashore, it is all the same. We ultimately come to a place where we can no longer deny the reality which is set before us. The casket is lowered or the ashes are spread, but we must eventually move. Grief will endure long after the body is out of sight, but we can learn to approach each tomorrow with a deeper understanding of our movement as we walk with each other upon this sacred ground.