Keeping Our Dead Close By

Altar, Church of the Ascension 2015

Altar, Church of the Ascension 2015

Last night, at about 7 o’clock CDT, I sat next to Sherod at Ascension. I had read from the passage, “Let us now praise famous…” during the choral evensong for All Saints. At two yesterday, I had been the celebrant at a Eucharist in Spanish for Día de los Muertos, and earlier, had been the celebrant for the principle service. I didn’t go to the 8 o’clock service but was there at about that time thinking I had a breakfast meeting to attend. And Sherod and I had been up early cleaning up after Daisy and worrying for her because she was sick—turned out she had pancreatitis after gobbling up Mo’s puppy chow the night before. So, I sat with Sherod at the end of a busy day and the tears just ran down my face. The music was exquisite last night and there’s just something about our nighttime services in the Episcopal Church.   It was the dead, though, their absence so stark in an unexpected way.

One of the things I’ve noticed, living in the rural South, is how many small churches have their own graveyards. On many occasions, as I drive past them, I think, “we like to keep our dead close by”. I first began to get a sense of this truth when a good friend at seminary mourned the unexpected death of her husband. Genie, who was brilliant, was as sophisticated and well read as anyone I knew, talked about the comfort of decorating her husband’s grave through the seasons, about getting to sit with him when she was lonely. Although two of my grandparents were buried in the city where I grew up, we never visited their graves so that kind of closeness with the dead was new to me.

There’s been quite a bit of death in our midst at Ascension this fall. I had done a funeral week before last, have been visiting a couple of people in hospice, helped with a funeral on Friday. We have a little garden in the back of the church where ashes can be interred. Day before yesterday the church had a workday and I was asked to come say a prayer and bless that space once again, before folks began to do some gardening there. As the planning for that work began earlier in the month, people were anxious to be as respectful as possible as they did that work, conscious that there in particular, dust and dust and ashes and love are inseparable.  It seemed right to recognize that by saying special prayers before the work began. that is what it means to keep our dead close by.

What washed over me last night, what had me in tears, had to do with my own dead. I had added the names of several people to the list that was read out loud last night. Two are buried in Cali, Alex and Mario Andrés who were killed in a guerrilla ambush on the night before I graduated from seminary. Marta Isabel, María’s birth mother, is in an unmarked grave in Mexico City—all we know is that she died sometime after giving birth to our girl. My mom’s ashes were washed away in the Caldera River and I like to think of them resting in that eternity called the Pacific Ocean. My friend Michael died in Minnesota but I realized last night that I don’t know where he is buried.

When I celebrated the Eucharist in Spanish earlier in the afternoon and we sang familiar songs a capella, in our wavering voices, there was a deep sense of connection with myself and where I came from. Then, last night, I heard those names read out loud, especially my mother’s, and realized the liturgies of All Saints and the Faithfully Departed are my version of bringing flowers to a grave. Last night was particularly poignant because I was aware that my mom’s name was read at about the time when she gave birth to me on a Sunday night in Colombia, all those years ago. In a flash, her absence was raw and too real again, and grief had come back to visit uninvited.

The beautiful music helped me remember that home for me is where my church is, where in the quiet of night, I am able to hear beloved names read while the choir sings, “Pie Jesu, Domine, dona eis requiem, sempiternam requiem” (Blessed Jesus, Lord, grant them rest, eternal rest). I may not be able to draw the comfort and consolation of decorating a grave. Instead, it is the music and prayers that help me keep my dead close. I am so very grateful to have a new church home…

4 thoughts on “Keeping Our Dead Close By

  1. Oh, my friend. How beautiful. Mom and I talk often about her plans to be cremated and have her ashes return to the Memory Garden at St. Mark’s. She knows where she wants to be — close to everything and everyone she loved and served for forty years. Death is powerful, but physical manifestations of love and commitment somehow refuse to give death the last word.

  2. So beautiful. I love this altar. I do a small one on my kitchen windowsill.
    Sorry I missed saying happy birthday. I hope it was great. I hope this is a wonderful year for you. I love you and am grateful to call you friend.

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