Essay: ‘The burial’

Photo: iStock

We march up the little hill to the old country cemetery by twos, by fours, with platters of fried chicken and bowls of potato salad and macaroni salad and Jell-O salad and all manner of things made with mayonnaise or whipped cream — mourners bearing blackberry pies and homemade cakes, which we arrange on bedsheet-draped plank tables next to the lemonade and punch and Thermoses of hot coffee.

We come — four generations from three families — to bury our dead: Alvena Clum, “June” to her dear ones.

Gathered in a semicircle of lawn chairs and camp chairs and hard plastic chairs borrowed from the fire department, we face the minister and the tables heaped with food in the shade of a three-sided shed. We remember the resolute woman who reared us and helped us find strength when we needed it, who worked in the strawberry fields and the canning factory and the garden, who knew the names of all of the trees and all of our ancestors.

Who, when she was 90 and dying and could say little else, told us she loved us.

We honor our mother, sister, aunt, friend. Our matriarch, our center, our binding.

June’s youngest daughter stands up to speak. She’s wearing her Sunday best — a black dress, gold lamé jacket and Mary Janes that pinch her feet. She has Down syndrome and we all think she might just lose it, and then we’ll all lose it, because we’re already choking back tears.

But she doesn’t cry. Instead, she tells us how much she loved her mother, what a good mother she was, and follows that with an emphatic “Hallelujah, amen!” She then turns and offers her hand to the minister: “Congratulations.”

She believes her mother is with Jesus, you see, and that is all the comfort she needs. Perhaps “congratulations” is the right sentiment.

Back in the far corner of the cemetery near the privy, a cousin digs a neat, round hole beneath the creaking triple crown of a towering pine. It’s near the graves of June’s husband and his brother, near her mother and father, her siblings and some of their children, too.

We move slowly across the cemetery’s heaving ground — across more than a century of graves marked by listing, mossy stones — to stand around that new little hole. We pray, and we cry. A son places June’s ashes in the earth, sprinkling the urn with soil. Others follow.

As we walk back to the shed to visit and heap our plates with chicken and sweets, the minister’s wife tells me that she wishes more funerals were like this one — plain, humble before God. That most people don’t realize funeral homes often stiff the preacher.

Love and memory are the only funeral trappings we really need, I think. How blessed I am that my family has both in abundance.

We grow heavy with the heat of the day and full bellies and full hearts, so we pack up our platters and drift away. And on our little light-dappled burying hill, the insects resume their hum, and the wildflowers track the sun, and the dead rest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *