Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Funeral

The coffin was so small.  She was a tiny woman.  Cut flowers rested in a vase on top of the casket and in another on top of the altar:   bright white lilies and creamy calla lilies.

Death brings white flowers.

Rows of red, aqua and beige plastic chairs were set up in rows under the covered corridor along the back of the parking lot.  This is where church happens on Sunday, where pastors and community groups meet, where fiestas happen.  This is where I found a young woman sitting alone.  There had been others with her during the night, but for a little while the young woman and the body of her mother were alone.  Four white candle flames flickered in the breeze.  We hugged.  We sat.  We talked a little.

As synod workers arrived for their day, some glanced in our direction.  Others paused to give a "good morning" or a hug.  Cars parked and people began their days.

The body had arrived at about 10:30 PM.  Five or six people, including the mother's pastor, stayed until about 4 AM.

"Do you want to go take a shower?" I asked.  "Don't worry, I will stay with your mom.  She won't be alone."  In El Salvador, it is customary for family to stay with the body from the moment of death until the internment.

The mother and daughter are my friends.  The daughter is a physician, and over the early years of the Mission of Healing she saw hundreds of patients and stayed side by side with us in the community.  As she developed her own career, she helped with organization and made connections for us with other doctors.  Once, my friend and I spent a week with her studying the work of her clinic in a rural community.  Her only sibling, a sister, was killed during the civil war.

The wind picked up and the candle nearest to me sizzled.  Each of the gold, spray-painted candle holders stood about 3 feet tall near each of the four "corners" of the coffin.  A few more people came to sit, and the pastor returned.  Usually a few members of the congregation gathered at this time for a weekly Bible Study.  Many of the adult and child members of this congregation have special needs.  The change in the routine was a little difficult.  One of the men helps to take pictures for the church.  He had printed a large photo of the mother and propped it up against the vase of flowers on the coffin.  A little later, he returned to the vigil carrying a plastic bag from Dollar City.  He pulled a simple black frame from the bag, unwrapped it and put the printed photo into the frame.  He placed the photo carefully on top of the coffin, angling it just right so people would see it as they walked over from the parking lot.

Usually, a small glass window allows people to see the face of the loved one who has died.  The mother had been badly beaten and did not look like herself.  The framed photo was a beautiful gift.

The pastor led a few songs.  We said the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed.  We sang a little more.  We sat.  In the mid-afternoon the funeral home team arrived with their pick-up truck.  It was specially outfitted with what can best be described as a "little house made of glass" over the bed. The driver turned on a recording of Ave Maria.  The tailgate was opened, and one by one the four candle holders with their burnt candle nubs were loaded in, underneath the platform that would old the coffin.  The small wooden lectern was next.  The team asked for some help, and they slid the coffin into its spot, closing and latching the glass doors behind it.  The flowers were set on small ledges on either side of the glass house.

People found rides.  The daughter and I sat in the back seat of the synod's micro-bus.  "Why did they choose only those sad songs?" a pastor remarked.  I noticed that aside from myself and the daughter, all of the others in the micro were female pastors.  The mother was a strong feminist, admired and imprisoned for her work in protecting mothers and children during the war.  These faithful women took leave from their work of the day to sit, to pray, to accompany and to support a daughter in recognition, admiration and love for her mother.  The women of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church have a depth of strength and solidarity, rooted in the love they have for God and one another, which is humble in style and mighty to feel.

The Bishop had donated the burial spot.  There were two men of the church buried there already, deep in the earth below where the mother would rest.  There will be room for one more above her.

We sat in folding metal chairs in a brisk, warm breeze and under the shade of a metal cabana supplied by the cemetery.  The workers stood off to the side, leaning on their shovels. A tractor with a small boom and tripod of chains pulled up and parked nearby; the lid to the concrete sarcophagus gently swung from the chains. A pastor had brought his guitar.  We sang and prayed and said the creed and then the bishop spoke a eulogy.  "As a girl she must have been quite a little princess, because as an adult she was still a beautiful princess."  He said she had been tortured and suffered, but now she was in the arms of Jesus.  We sang the song Salvadoran's sing on Mother's Day.  Neither the daughter nor I could sing at all.  The mother's burial was taking place on the anniversary of the mother's birth.  It was just too much. All of it.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  Those words are universal.  The Bishop and two pastors beside him held handfuls of dirt over the coffin and sprinkled it down, forming three dirt crosses.

"Will you say some words?" the Bishop asked the daughter.  She shook her head, no.

The cemetery administrator walked over to where the daughter and I were seated.  "When you're ready, let us know to continue."

"I can't," she whispered.  I nodded to the man.

The coffin was placed over the hole and gently lowered down with straps that were connected to a hand-cranked winch.  The squeak, squeak, squeak sound pierced the air as the coffin sunk lower and lower into the earth.  "Isn't it there yet?" whispered the pastor behind us.  We were all thinking the same thing.  The floral arrangements were dismembered and people walked over to the hole to toss the flowers onto the coffin.  A worker climbed into the hole with a bucket of cement.  He slathered the gray goop onto the edges of the concrete sarcophagus which held the coffin.  This was work which we envisioned, for we could really only see his head and hear the scrape-scrape-scrape of the trowel.  He climbed out of the hole, and the tractor lowered the lid into place.  The worker jumped back in with his cement bucket and sealed the tomb.  We sang You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore while he worked.

Two men with shovels then peeled back an astro-turf carpet, revealing a pile of dirt.  They shoveled and tamped, shoveled and tamped.  The mourners left.  The micro full of women pastors left.  The daughter stayed, accompanied by a best friend nurse, a friend from fourth grade, and me.  In El Salvador, it is customary for someone to stay beside the grave until the dirt is completely replaced.  That's the only way to make sure your loved one is really buried.   The concrete corner post-stubs that mark the boundaries of the plot were replaced as well as the two grave markers.  A third marker will be added.  The salesman left his card.

The fourth-grade friend hopped onto his motorcycle.  He and the daughter had not seen each other for 20 years, but there he was, keeping an eye on the women and making sure everything was OK.  The nurse's brother drove us back to the synod offices, in what might be one of the most harrowing car trips the daughter and I have ever had.  When we were safely deposited at the offices, we burst out laughing at just what a terrible driver that brother was!  But we were grateful for the ride.

Later that night, we went out for pupusas.  Comfort food after a long day.

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