The funeral home looked better on the outside. The solid, dignified impression given by the white pillars standing guard outside the large double doors disappeared when you stepped inside and walked on old carpeting into a dimly lit room with dark wood paneling. Across the room were a pair of lime-green armchairs embosse^l with tarnished silver studs. One of the chairs held an old guy—probably the custodian. He was up for some company, and I wasn’t in a hurry. He brought out hot, strong coffee. I gulped down as much as I could without scalding myself, hoping the warmth would raise my body temperature.
Up in northern Minnesota, he told me, they bury the dead in vaults above ground during the winter, Down here in tropical St. Paul, however, everyone goes underground. “Backhoes, power hammers, whatever it takes,” he said cheerfully, explaining that, after machines pierced the frost line, winter grave digging offered no special challenges.
“Are you the pastor?” he asked, nodding at the thick black book I held in the hand that wasn’t holding the coffee. I shook my head. “I was his social worker.” He nodded again: “Nice of you to come.” He handed me a 2001 calendar card that, right under the funeral chapel’s name and the American flag, listed him as the director. We talked a while longer, then he excused himself. He came back and said, “They’re out there, in the new cemetery. You’ll want to drive your car. Just park it behind the hearse. Take your coffee with you. They’re probably waiting for you.”
The wind hurled snow at my face as I hurried to my car. It started, and I took off not bothering to turn on the heater. It didn’t matter. It was one of those days where you just never get warm. I parked behind the white hearse, swallowed more coffee, and joined the huddled group of three men: the undertaker, his assistant, and an acquaintance of the dead man. The looks they gave me spoke for themselves: They had been waiting for me. We introduced ourselves and made small talk while the wind burned our cheeks and our toes went numb. The undertaker’s assistant pointed behind us to some frozen flower bouquets sticking out of a mound of snow. “Did that one yesterday,” he said. “A 14-year old boy.” Car accident? I asked. “Naw,” he said, “He went into the hospital three years ago for surgery and came out a vegetable. Couldn’t talk or nothing. A damn shame. It’s a real blessing he died.”
We turned to our coffin. It rested on two thick straps that wound around a broad, stainless-steel frame. At the proper time, the contraption would mechanically lower the coffin into the hole. Behind the grave, a chain-link fence separated the cemetery from the busy Highway 96. The undertaker asked if I wanted some prayers to be said. He deferred to me, I suspect, because the county I worked for was paying for the funeral, and he was unsure if I was attending as a mourner or to make sure county money was being well spent. Yes, I said, I would say some prayers.
I opened the Saint Andrew’s missal, made the Sign of the Cross, and read aloud Psalm 129, the De Profundis, in English. We were about 30 feet from the highway, and I found my voice rising to compete with passing trucks and cars. A plane flew overhead as well, drowning out the plea: “Out of the depths I have cried to Thee, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice.” Next I read the prayers in the burial Mass, ending awkwardly, it felt, with the prayer for absolution. A priest should be doing this, not me. But this was a county burial, not a funeral; besides, we weren’t even positive the dead man had been baptized.
Part of the problem was that the dead man, when alive, often gave conflicting information about himself. I wasn’t even sure his real name was Charles, although he answered to it. Different people got different stories about when Charles’ birthday was, what his Social Security number was, which war he was in, whether or not he was married, whether or not he had children, and so on. He wasn’t trying to confuse people; he was confused. Years of drinking had given him a wet brain. Charles was staying at a homeless shelter in St. Paul until he started heaving up blood. At the hospital, they discovered he had lung cancer; after they took out half his lung, they discovered he was demented. Charles was discharged to a nursing home to recuperate from the surgery. He recovered so fully that he started assaulting people. He was taken to the psych ward. The county diagnosed him as mentally ill and told me to find him another place to live.
The last year of his life was spent in a different nursing home. Charles stopped fighting; other than stealing cigarettes and staying out late, he was a model resident. He developed prostate cancer. Then his kidneys went out. Charles became too weak to loiter on University Avenue. For his own protection, he was placed on the locked unit. Like a caged bird, he wilted. The last time I talked to him, he recognized me but was too weak and confused to say much. I didn’t tell him things would be okay, though, because he wasn’t that confused.
There’s no remedy for renal failure, but Charles rallied briefly. He even ate solid food for a few days. On Sunday night, the staff took his vitals (pulse, blood pressure, heart rate), and his signs were good. He lay down in bed, and, less than two hours later, he died, very quietly, alone. Because of the state of Charles’ health, most of his clothing was destroyed. The nursing home was so thorough that Charles had no burial clothes. Not that it mattered: His was a quick, closed-coffin burial without family, friends, coworkers, or nursing-home staff. There weren’t even any enemies. Charles left the world wrapped in a winding sheet and nothing else—nothing I knew about, anyway.
The acquaintance at Charles’ burial was a retired bus driver named Bruce, who talked to Charles a couple times while visiting Charles’ roommate at the nursing home. After I finished the prayers, he sang a verse of a Swedish hymn in a clear, strong tenor voice. I couldn’t pronounce the name of the song (translated, it was something like “God holds all of us in His hands”). Bruce told me of the night Charles said to him, “I know I’m dying, and I want to get right with God.” Bruce said, “I sat with Charles, and we both prayed, and he accepted Jesus as his personal savior.” He added quietly, “It was the kind of meeting I dream about.”
We watched the coffin descend into the dark hole, slowly and very quietly. The traffic continued to zoom by. The undertaker shook our hands and left, leaving his assistant to complete the burial. Brace made a joke about his mother calling De Profundis the “scuba diver’s prayer.” I stared at him. Then, for some reason, I told him that I had prevented Charles’ body from being cremated. He shook his head in irritation. “It doesn’t matter what happens to our bodies. We are spirit. When we rise again, we get glorified bodies. The Bible says, ‘The sea will give up its dead.'”
I wasn’t sure how all those thoughts were connected to one another. I thought about explaining the anti-Christian origins of cremation, how the cremation societies of the 19th century were Masonic in origin; their motives were to emphasize materialism and de-emphasize the religious dogma of the resurrection of the body. Instead, I tried a more familiar response, remarking that St. Paul called our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit. “Yes, if you possess the Holy Spirit,” he said, with a glint in his eye. Fair enough, I thought. (Later, I wondered if he had directed that at me. Being a former Protestant, I find Protestant suspicions somewhat refreshing—much preferable to the insipid ecumenism some of them have fallen prey to). I looked him square in the eye, shook his hand, and smiled. “One day, we’ll know for sure.” I left him there, at the graceless burial site, to mull it over. It was another banner day for the New Evangelization.
Charles was not merely materially unencumbered when he left this world. His sole spiritual sustenance was equally meager: the groping of a Protestant passerby and the hope-against-hope prayers of his Catholic social worker for his soul. It was oddly fitting that he died on December 10, the Feast of Our Lady of Loreto. Loreto, Italy, is the site of the Holy House of Nazareth, said to have been transported there from Nazareth by angels. Maybe the prayers for Charles, who had spent his last years homeless, persuaded Our Lady to bring him to his real home. Yes, it’s a long shot—a real long shot. But to deny the possibility of prayer changing a soul’s destination is not to be Catholic. Besides, winter has set in, and it’s already tough enough to feel warm.