The autumn breeze lifted one corner of the fake green turf covering the pile of dirt. Unattached leaves of every imaginable color swirled and raced each other, reminding the chaplain of some middle school kids he’d watched playing yesterday afternoon.
He sat quietly, looking at the casket, wondering again what the old man’s life had been. Who and what he’d been. Where… It’s so odd that I don’t even know his name. There was no wallet, no ID, no prescription. The EMTs who found him on the park bench couldn’t find anyone around who knew him, knew where he lived. The only things he had were the worn Army Air Force ring on a gnarled finger and that old Bible . . . Unconsciously the chaplain glanced down to reassure himself the Bible was still there, that it, too, hadn’t disappeared from the old man’s life once it was over.
Taking a deep breath, he glanced over at the funeral director, catching him checking his watch again. Ruefully, he shrugged slightly, embarrassed there were no mourners. There weren’t even onlookers. The only witnesses to the burial were the guys in stained Carhartts who’d do the burying.
“Jerry, I thought sure after I published that death notice on area websites and in the papers that somebody’d show up. I know you can’t wait around, so I can go ahead and do the committal.”
The funeral director took his own deep breath, looked once more around the little country cemetery just to be sure. No cars, engine sounds, not even the scuffing of shoes on gravel. Reluctantly, he nodded to the chaplain.
Standing, his thoughts flickered back to the ER scene after the busy, sweating doc knew the trauma team had given it their best and finally pronounced the old man.
“Call it.” How many times have I heard that? And how many times have I gone out to tell the family–and there isn’t one? He recalled the normal phenomenon when a worn-out team that’s just lost a patient sort of vaporizes into thin air, ‘disappearing’ for a precious couple of minutes until the next trauma patient rolls through the doors.
He’d done his usual: remaining with the still body, making the sign of the Cross on the old man’s forehead as he called him by name and gave his spirit back to the God who’d sent it Earthside for a few years. In this case, he had to call him ‘Unknown Albert’ because the only thing in the old man’s possession when they brought his body in was a worn, frayed Bible. The Chaplain carefully looked but couldn’t find a name anywhere in it. Funny, but I don’t remember one case where no one’s shown up at all, even at the graveside.
Shaking his head slightly at the mental video, he finished stepping over to the music stand that served the cemetery as a podium. Idly, the chaplain noticed somebody had spray-painted it matte brown as if trying to add a little dignity to the surroundings. Dignity in death? Just absence, like an abandoned house he’d once dared to explore by himself as a boy. He’d been told to never go to the ghost town by himself, but . . . It had been so still, so quiet as he snuck from room to room, imagining who’d once lived there. But they were gone. He was gone.
Gathering his thoughts, he scanned the row of four empty chairs the workmen had placed beside the open grave, four red-velvet sleeves fitted down over the bare metal backs carrying the funeral home’s stylized logo. Empty chairs. No family to observe his passing.
No friend standing, shoulders bunched against the brisk wind, paying final respects to someone he felt slightly guilty about for not trying to know him better when it might have made a difference.
Well, the chaplain thought, sure wouldn’t be the first time I ever spoke before an empty chapel with only a closed-circuit TV camera lens for company. Taking a more deliberate, more gentle deep breath, he looked directly at the flag-draped casket.
“Albert could be one of countless, nameless men who’ve stepped up when others stepped back. He is memorialized by those whose remains are guarded every day, every hour by the guards at Washington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He could even be one of them.”
The chaplain’s voice faltered. “We don’t know anything about him: his family, his career, where he grew up, where he served his country nor what he did upon returning. Favorite brand of potato chips. His hobbies. We don’t even know his real name. We know very few things about him – but what we do know is significant.”
Albert was a man with a story someone should have taken the time to hear, perhaps even to write. His life counted.
“I’d like to mention those things for a few minute . . . to pause and remember this man’s living testimony – and his dying legacy.”
The chaplain paused for a few seconds.
“Albert had courage for two reasons. Military boot camp was no cakewalk when he joined up; it took something to serve during Korea and Vietnam. By rights he should have a full military escort here to solemnly fold his flag, play Taps and honor him.
“Albert was a man with a story someone should have taken the time to hear, perhaps even to write. His life counted. And that brings me to the second reason I know Albert had courage. He was a man of unflinching, uncompromising, unapologetic faith in God.
“I didn’t find his real name in the only possession he had with him at his passing. Yet inside that worn old Bible was a half-sheet of paper on which Albert or someone had written these words . . .
“I confess that this is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught by the Word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert and my heart is receptive. I will never be the same. I am about to receive the incorruptible, indestructible, ever-living seed of the Word of God. I will never be the same. Never, never, never. I will never be the same, in Jesus’s name.”
“Cynics would ask how I know it was even his Bible, or that those were his words. I’ve witnessed many people passing from this life to the next. I saw the peace radiating from his wizened, leathery face though he himself had already headed Home. Though it seems he was roughly treated in this life, he was at rest in the next.
“William Hazlitt said that grace has been defined as the outward expression of the inward harmony of the soul. Whatever else Albert experienced during his life, at its earthly end I saw grace – the unmistakable visible signature of God – on his face. I believe him. I believe that when Albert was confronted by the Gospel’s magnificent freedom through Christ, he welcomed it and became a changed man. When he wrote or repeated those words, ‘I will never be the same. Never, never, never,’ I believe him. Having met him, I will never be the same, either.
“And so now in this quiet garden of the dead, we commit the mortal remains of this man to the ground from which it came; and we release the now-freed spirit back to the God who shared it with us in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
As the chaplain turned to step back from the head of the grave, he heard a sharp command and the distinctive clacking of rifle bolts. A veteran himself, he swiftly spun to see the three workmen who’d been quietly standing by to lower the casket and close the grave. From their personal vehicles, they’d retrieved hunting rifles and stood in line with rifles pointed up.
“FAHR!” Three different calibers racketed off the surrounding hills.
“RuDEE . . .” Bolts again clacked in unison.
“RuDEE . . .”
As the echoes died, the three men quietly safed their weapons, returned them to their racks and approached the grave. One laid his cell phone down on the painted stand. His two companions gently removed the flag from the casket, doing a credible job of folding it. As they stepped back, the third man touched his phone. The haunting notes of Taps began to play.
Instinctively, the chaplain came to attention and saluted the casket, along with the two workmen flanking their companion who held the folded flag. As the notes ended and the sound faded, the old lyric popped into the chaplain’s mind:
‘Tis Grace has brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me Home.”
A voice stopped him in midstride. “Chaplain?”
Turning, he was surprised to see one of the work crew standing and holding out the folded flag. “There isn’t anybody else.”
Making eye contact, he received the flag, holding it in place as the other man stepped back, stood tall in his Carhartt pants and faded work shirt, and slowly saluted.
As he slowly walked back to his car after shaking hands and mentioning his appreciation to the workmen now lowering the casket into its grave, he quirked his mouth in a half-smile.
“Nope. I’ll never be the same, either.”
© D. Dean Boone, October 2014