A son of the South

The funeral service for Walter Turner at Church of the Ascension represented some of the very best of the church I serve.  Everything came together to be the kind of moment the Episcopal church does gracefully, tenderly, beautifully. Clergy who served before my time came back to preach, commend, and commit his ashes to the ground in our Memorial Garden.  The rector who was at Ascension when the church burned in 1984 was there, though enormously diminished by Alzheimer’s,  Walter had been such an important lay leader in the rebuilding effort immediately after the fire that Mark Waldo’s namesake and son Mark, and Anne, Mark Sr.’s wife, 90 and with a knee replacement just two weeks old, thought it important to have Mark Sr. there to honor Walter.  The music during the service was simply exquisite. I teared up when the choir sang  Balm in Gilead, and again, when they led the congregation as we sang Lift Every Voice.  We celebrated and remembered a life of great goodness.

With the bells tolling, and the cross leading, with 6 vergers dressed in cassocks, one carrying the fragile, precious urn of ashes, we made our way to the Memorial Garden after the service had ended to commit Walter to the earth that he was made from and was returning to.  About half-way to the steps leading down to that garden, I looked up in the perfect sunshine of an early spring day in Montgomery.  A Camellia bush was in full bloom and in front of it, a Dogwood was laden with flowers as well. The azaleas lining the bed along our path were days, if not hours, from bursting into full bloom.  I’m almost glad there was no way to capture the moment with a camera–it was so much more important to be in that moment, in that procession, in that strange combination of joy, sorrow, and brokenness that marks all funerals, but in a powerful way, this one.

As much goodness as shaped Walter’s life, there was more than a fair share of sorrow in his and his wife Betty’s life.  Just a year ago, in this same month, Walter and Betty entrusted their son Will’s ashes to the same earth, the same garden.  As I looked at the flowers blooming, and thought back on my visits with Walter, when I would take communion to him and strain to understand the words he breathed out after having his vocal chords removed and replaced with a permanent tracheotomy, I thought, “this was a son of the South whom Pat Conroy would have understood well. And this is a day worthy of such a son’s funeral.”  Rest in peace, Walter.  You were well loved. We will watch over the ones you left behind, who miss you beyond words.

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