I’ve been to lots of funerals. They are always sad. Always painful. Most often the ceremony at the church moves to a cemetery where there is a canopy set up to protect us from the sun, or the rain. The hole has been dug, but the brown empty ground is covered by a sheet of astro-turf like material. We shed our tears, speak our prayers, get in our cars and drive away to eat casseroles and tell stories. These are valuable markers and moments we remember.
But, never have I experienced a celebration of life and death so beautiful, raw and true as I did last month.
The setting for the burial of this mother, gentle-soul, and lover of nature and animals took place on top of a hill at a ranch in west Texas surrounded by mesquite trees, cactus, rocks, thorns, wild cats, goats, and hawks.
Nearly one-hundred people climbed the highest hill on the ranch, navigating through mud, rocks, stickers and wild-flowers. Some bounded up the hill, others stopped to catch their breath. All took in the beauty, breathed in the fresh Texas air, and walked expectant, and a bit apprehensive of the mystery ahead.
A four-wheel drive truck carried the pecan wood casket up the hill, through the mud and rocks.
We all arrived to the top of the hill to take in expansive views of the west Texas landscape- at it’s best in spring bloom, past the winter rain, but not yet captive to the summer heat. God’s creation big and small on full display.
In the midst of the beauty of nature was a six-foot deep gaping hole. The chiseled rock looked raw, broken and scarred. I wanted to look away. To focus on the trees, the view, the air; but the hole was unavoidable. The pain could not be ignored.
The physically strongest of the group worked together in rhythm to move the casket from the truck to set upon wooden slats placed over the hole.
After reading scripture and soaking in the final moments in the presence of the body of our dear loved Mother, Wife, Grammy and friend, the strongest worked together to lower the casket into the hole.
It was risky- we stood by hoping it would all go smoothly- when they gently and gracefully lowered the wooden casket down into the hole we all breathed easier.
And there it sat.
Deep at the bottom. Awkwardly distant, yet hauntingly close. Again, I had to force myself to look. Accustomed to protecting myself from pain, I realized how that resistance also robs me of the full beauty.
This moment was an invitation to go there. To look the pain in the face and to let the beauty sweep in and overwhelm us.
We were then invited to fill in the hole. Shovels were handed out and one by one we pushed a shovel into the rocky dirt, moved it over the hole and let go. The rocks echoed as they hit the wood and rolled to the side.
We were tenuous at first, hesitant to take part in something so foreign in our world sanitized from the realities of death.
Except the kids. They loved it. They had permission to throw rocks. They were surrounded by the people they loved. They moved fluidly between the burial site and the surrounding nature- discovering the scorpions, lizards, and caterpillars.
But the work was not easy. There was a lot of dirt. It was a big hole. The people shoveling began to sweat, and blisters formed on their hands. It took a long time.
Little three-year-old Nico worked to pick up the biggest rocks he could find to contribute to filling the hole. Just as the hole was beginning to appear level, Nico picked up the biggest rock of the day, lifted it, and threw it. He stepped back. Looked at the pile of dirt, took a breath and said, ‘that was hard.’
Yes it was.
Hard, and beautiful.
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” --Genesis 3:19