She stood at the foot of the silver-blue coffin, an American flag waving gently behind her, the rolling Appalachian hills of four counties visible along the skyline. She raised her arms, her hands open above us.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you,” she said. “May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
It is a scene that happens every day. But it was a first in my father’s family cemetery—a woman presiding over the commitment of a loved one to the earth. My father’s frail brother, whom my parents called a “hard shell Baptist” preacher, stood in the background near his wife’s grave and watched in silence as a woman performed the sacrament he had officiated hundreds of times in the presence of women who were not allowed to speak in church.
Karen, the lay minister, was my mother’s best friend, and my siblings and I were relieved and comforted when she agreed to officiate the service celebrating our mother’s life. She spent the day at my side, telling me stories that made me smile in the midst of my grief—like the time they traveled to Duke University for a check-up after Mom had a corneal transplant. Midway through the trip that spanned three states, they realized that they’d both forgotten their “bloomers” and had to stop at a K-Mart to shop for undergarments.
Karen reminded me that before my mother’s first stroke three years ago, she had loved life. And on the day of the funeral, she reminded me that, like all mothers, Mom had a life outside her family—something difficult to understand in a mother so utterly devoted to her children. Karen described a woman I had never seen—a friend who made her laugh so hard, she said, “I had to pull over to the side of the road because I almost peed my pants.”
This had not been the only surprise of the day. As the funeral procession drove behind the hearse, a four-wheel drive that could navigate the rutted dirt road that led to the cemetery, I had watched a real-life version of the movie I’d created in my memory. We passed scores of unpainted hovels perched precariously on hillsides, punctuated occasionally by a well-manicured lawn or a neatly painted home. I squirmed as we passed a number of sheds painted with the emblem of the Confederate flag.
Then, quite unexpectedly, two men standing beside a pick-up truck took off their caps and stood at attention until our procession passed. I held my breath, moved to tears by their tribute to my mother, a stranger known to them only as a life worthy of respect.
Watching them recede in the distance, we entered a stretch of uninhabited hills, and I began to breathe again, focusing on the vivid yellows and oranges and reds of the fall foliage. Grateful that the leaves had clung to their branches long enough to form a canopy over my mother’s last trip along these roads, I reflected on the service, which had been exactly the kind of celebration I wanted for her.
I held my breath again as the thought occurred to me that my preacher uncle, the sole remaining male among my father’s nine siblings, might not permit a woman to read scripture and lay my mom to rest.
I turned to my husband and blurted, “What if Uncle Junior won’t let Karen commit Mom to the earth?”
My husband glanced briefly from the winding road to me, his eyebrows rising in surprise at a thought that had not occurred to him.
I panicked, imagining the scene that might disrupt the last moments of my mother’s service.
Two of my closest friends rode in the back seat, city girls who had driven six hours to be with me on this day. One of them, a skeptic whose parents were atheists, had been on her best behavior after I’d warned her that my father’s family believed that women should not cut their hair, wear make-up or jewelry or pants, or speak in church services.
Now she spoke up from the back seat. “So what are you going to do if he won’t let her finish the service?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, I’m not going to create a scene,” I floundered.
“Well, you need to at least anticipate a plan if that happens,” she pressed.
I talked through a plan to have my uncle commit her to the earth and to have Karen say the closing prayer.
But when we arrived in the cemetery and waited as the other vehicles lined up behind us, I stood at the crest of the mountain underneath a tree and watched as Karen held a Bible in one hand and, with the other, took my uncle’s hand in hers and guided him as he walked unsteadily among the tombstones.
She let go of his hand and came to my mother’s coffin, patting my arm soothingly as she walked by me. Banishing my vision of darkness, she committed my mother to the Light.
Afterwards, I hugged my uncle, who apologized that the cemetery had not been tended in a while. Then in a fragile voice he said, “I guess it’ll be a long time before I see you again.” It was a gentle reminder that I hadn’t been back to this place in the fourteen years since my father had died.
I sobbed into his shoulder. “Well, Uncle Junior, I’m thinking I’ll come back next summer.”
“Alright then,” he said. “Now you know you and your family can always stay with me. I have a big house.”
I nodded and patted his hand. “Thank you, Uncle Junior.”
That spoken thank you brimmed with my unspoken gratitude that my uncle had defied everything he had been taught about God to allow my family to send our mother to heaven in our own way.
It is a lesson I learn again and again when I’m tempted to stuff complex human beings into the tiny box of my understanding of them—that everyone can offer grace and that love does, indeed, cover a multitude of sins.
Tell me your stories of gratitude and grace.