Standing Witness

I don’t think I’ve ever cried at a burial.

Funeral masses, not so much, either — my mom being the notable exception.

I do cry at viewings occasionally — mom, my paternal grandparents (I was a mess at Mohawk’s, especially when I saw my nephews cry), and my second mother-in-law — but even then, by that time, most of my tears have been shed.

And I have become even more inoculated since starting to work at a cemetery four months ago. I have witnessed dozens of burials, from infants to the aged and everything in between. I have stood in as pall bearer for funerals that could not muster the necessary number, and have been privileged to do so each time.

Burying the dead is a corporal work of mercy, and I take the responsibility with — you’ll pardon the pun — grave seriousness. It is an honor to help guide the remains of the departed to their final resting place.

But besides the feeling of privilege, I feel nothing. I am but a witness, no more invested than was Charon when he was the ferryman on the River Styx.

Today was different. Today I got choked up.

The burial today involved the cremains of an elderly gentleman who served his country and received military honors. This also was not my first military burial — I have heard “Taps” more than my share already, not to mention cannons, rifles, and the occasional bagpiper.

But today was different.

There was no one in attendance.

The gentleman’s daughter, his only surviving relative, is in a nursing home and was unable to attend. The undertaker recorded the service so she could watch her father be laid to rest with full military honors. The two servicemen presented the flag to the deacon, and the undertaker will present it to her with the recording.

But when the servicemen left, there were but two people at the grave: the deacon and the undertaker.

As a rule, I stay away from the burials once they begin and until they finish.

But today was different.

The deacon motioned for me to approach the grave, so that there would be someone in attendance.

I accepted the privilege with honor.

I stood there and prayed with the deacon, and it hit me: this gentleman — this father, this widower, this serviceman — had no one at the end but the clergy, the undertaker, and the gravedigger.

All at once a wave of grief hit me for this man I didn’t know, had never met. For the life that he lived, the memories he made, the love that he felt, and no one who knew him was there to bid him farewell.

My job had never before felt so important.

Like I said, I don’t cry at burials. But today was different. Today the weight and import of my position became crystal clear. It was an honor and a privilege.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

One thought on “Standing Witness

  1. Joe, that was one of the most moving pieces I had ever read when I first saw it in the Gazette. Your intimate description of the event touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes as I read the piece. I will never witness another military service in the same way that I used to. Your writing is alive, and you have a knack for turning a phrase on it’s ear, in a good way. Your pieces read the same as if you were sitting in my living room, telling me the story. I eagerly scan each issue of the Gazzette looking for your next piece, that will take me to a place, or present me with an issue, that never fails to invoke some emotion I typically wasn’t prepared for. Thanks very much, and keep up the great work Joe!
    Mario T

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