One of the joys of being a newly ordained curate, is that everything is new. Today was one of those days I got to do something really new; not just something new at St. Luke’s.
For the first time I led a committal service at a cemetery. I had never met the family before. They are not parishioners of my parish. This was one of those times that the local funeral home called looking for help, and I was tagged to jump in.
The night before the committal I was feeling pretty laid back about it. I even scoffed when a friend, and clergy colleague, referred to my big day, thinking it was really no big deal: “It’s a page and a half, how big a deal could it be.” I’m glad he warned me otherwise. I’m thankful I was wrong.
I took my friend’s words to heart, and spent a period of time prior to the committal in prayer at home – the benefit of the cemetery being down the hill from my house. I felt calm, relaxed, and ready for whatever I was about to walk into. I arrived at the cemetery, and was greeted but the funeral director. An amazing and delightful woman whom I had met very briefly just a few days before. Her calming and warm presence, with just the right amount of humor, was exactly what I needed to calm the butterflies in my stomach.
As I got in her car to drive to through the cemetery to the place of burial our conversation came to an end, and I began to pray. I could see the cremains and American flag resting on the backseat of her car. We arrived. She insisted on helping me out of the car, which I was thankful for as cassock, surplice, and tippet were a lot to manage. How embarrassing it would have been if I tripped on my vestments getting out of the car – I mean, no one wants to be that curate.
We walked up the little hill to the family plot. For the first time I was able to see the whole family gathered. His daughter and his step-children. His grandchildren. His brother. His name was already on the tombstone, shared with his wife who died five years ago. As the service men their to conduct military honors (without the guns) marched into place, I could feel the Spirit swirling amongst us. We were indeed standing on holy ground.
Trying not to be drowned out by the noise of the highway, or the birds singing away, I began the anthem, “Everyone the Father gives to me will come to me; I will never turn away anyone who believes in me . . .” My focus was at an all time high. I was struck by the power of those words. I mustered the pastoral strength and authority bestowed upon me in an attempt to not let my voice shake: To be calm and steady in my words.
I reach out and grabbed a handful of earth. I poured it, in the shape of a cross, on the cremains. “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our brother Stewart . . .” I was holding holy ground, I was pouring holy ground, my hand was covered in holy ground.
As I turned the page in my prayer book I watched as the earth fall from my hands onto the page and roll into the center of the book. It was the first time I’ve gotten my prayer book dirty.
After we finished the prayers for the committal, taps was played, the flag was presented, I spent time with the family. First the step-son, then the daughter, then the brother. People always say you remember your first. I will never forgot Stewart’s brother. He came up to me, “Thank you so much Father for being here. I am his brother,” and with tears in his eyes and a cracking voice he continued, “I am going to be okay.” Before I could say a word he walked away.
After sometime standing in the family plot, Stewart’s family made their way to the cars. The funeral director and I stayed behind.
When everything was finished my new friend, the funeral director, drove me back to the car handed me a couple of envelopes and drove away. I took off my vestments, got into the car, and noticed that there was still earth on my hands. I opened my prayer book to page 501 and took a moment to take it all in. To gaze upon the earth on my hand and in my prayer book. I began to wonder about how many more times I will get my prayer book dirty in cemeteries like this. I began to wonder about all the names I will place into the prayers. I began to wonder about all the holy ground I will stand upon.
As I drove away I was filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the opportunity to be in that place with those people on this day filled with joy and sadness – as the step-son described it. Gratitude for the vocation God has laid upon me that allows me to serve the world in this particular way.
I am sure I will having plenty of opportunities to get my prayer book dirty over these next fifty year (God willing), but I will always remember – and give thanks for – this first time I got my prayer book dirty.
Rest eternal grant to him, O Lord; And let light perpetual shine upon him.
May his soul, and the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.