There is a convoy of vehicles leaving my driveway headed for the cemetery. Thankfully, it’s a blue-sky kind of day. Yesterday was monsoon weather. Storms moved in from Alabama and pelted the daylights out of us. Max was a nervous wreck. There was no consoling him.
I’m the last to roll out the long gravel drive. Before I get in my truck I scratch his ears and tell him he cannot go with me.
“Today is not for you buddy. You’re gonna have to stay. I won’t be gone long.”
Most of the time he understands the concept of staying put. He folds his tail up under his hind quarters and gives me the sad look, like I just banished him from my life.
“Come on buddy. Don’t look at me like that. It’s a special day for Mama. It’ll be better if you stay. Now, stay. You hear me? I need you to stay.” He turns his back to me.
I live an easy quarter mile off the county road. On those days when I tell Max he has to stay, he will often follow me to the top of the hill and stop, looking after me as I disappear in the dust. But today, he is on my heels all the way out to the mailbox. I roll the window down and fuss at him. It does no good. So, I get out and open the back door. He lays down and gives me the look. “I told you I was going.”
Stupid dog. Good dog. I think he knew.
This was not your typical funeral procession. There was no hearst. No police escort. No headlights. In fact, there was really no procession at all. A few friends and family left their houses at the appointed time and we all just met up together at the cemetery. There was no tent. No grass carpet. No folding chairs.
Funeral processions can be tricky, you know. My buddy, Steve, told me about the procession for his mother-in-law. It was a long one. “Like one of those mile-long freight trains,” he said. They got hung up in road construction on the way and the hearst missed the turn to the cemetery.
We were right behind the hearst and had a decision to make. Do we follow or turn? The whole convoy took three lefts and two rights through a subdivision to get back on course. “To this day, the funeral director still apologizes to me every time he sees me, which is often since we go to church together.”
I carried the small plastic vault on the back floorboard of my truck. Before we left the house, I put the urn inside. My son gave us a small wooden box he had made, and inside that, my youngest daughter put a letter to her mom. My granddaughter put a letter inside to Nana. Beth’s sister placed a gold chain necklace with their parents wedding rings on it inside the box.
I can’t explain fully what these things mean. Keepsakes. Memories. Words of gratitude and hope. We all know that you don’t take anything with you when you leave this world. But I’d like to think you take the love of family with you. And each of these were exactly that. Tokens of love.
When I lifted my wife’s ashes from the truck and carried them to the grave, it was a weight I had imagined for the last seven months. Some part of me had convinced my spirit that after this long of a wait, my emotions would be in check. I would be calm about this solemn duty of mine.
When I had the family headstone made, I asked for a piece of a verse from Matthew 11:28 to be carved into the granite. “Come to me,” it says. “and I will give you rest.” After I thanked everyone for coming out to be with us, my friend, Rick, read those words from the Good Book.
It was time for me to say what I had rehearsed over and over in my mind. The first few thoughts came out fine, but when I got to the part where I wanted to address my kids, my throat locked up on the lump inside. I had told myself that I wouldn’t look them in the eye or else I wouldn’t make it. I looked anyway. My youngest was quietly weeping.
I told them that we raised them in the faith, and we took them to church, not because we thought it would make them perfect. “In fact,” I told them, “you’re not perfect.” Nothing quite like a good chuckle at a grave-side service. But truth is, none of us are perfect.
By now, my oldest daughter had a grip on my upper left arm. She was squeezing it tight enough to cut off my circulation. Squeezing and releasing like a nurse pumping up a blood pressure cuff. I found it comforting.
I stumbled on through it. “We took you to church because we wanted you to know for yourselves where to turn when life gets tough. You have always come to us when you needed help, when your mistakes cut deep, when life got hard. But ultimately, there’s only One you can turn to in this life. Only one place where you’ll find true rest for the soul.”
Today we celebrate that rest for Beth.
When I finished fumbling around with my speech, the group began to sing Amazing Grace. The old songs still mean the most. And while they sang, my son and I shoveled the Georgia red dirt back into the hole to cover the vault. One of my daughters took a turn.
I had asked Shawn to lead the song. “Maybe two verses while we cover the grave,” I said to him. I knew it might be an awkward visual. Shoveling dirt is something normally done well after the crowd has left the cemetery. I thought the song would give us all something greater to consider in that moment. Something other than the sound of a shovel doing what it was built to do.
As it turned out, I had dug a four-verse hole. They kept singing and I kept shoveling. By the time my son and I got done, it felt like “we’d been there 10 thousand years.” But we raked up the last bit as the song ended. Beth’s friend gave me some flowers to place over the mound. One of the men from the church led us in prayer and we headed for our cars.
I invited the whole crew over to the house for BBQ when we were done. A good spread after this kind of service is as natural and refreshing as the coolness that follows a summer rain. It revives the soul. A table full of friends gives us reason to swap stories and recount the good times. Especially when there’s ribs and pulled pork with tater salad and baked beans.
We sat together into the evening. We hugged a hundred times and said goodbye out the door and waved up the driveway. And I was reminded of an old-time saying.
It’s not final. Only goodbye for now.