Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Case of the Catholic Casket

Giottino's Pietà of San Remigio. ca. 1365, Tempera on wood, 195 x 134 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.
"In the winter of '95, my bedridden father was preparing for his impending death. As the town's longtime independent Baptist minister, he had helped countless families in their grief. In his mind, by taking care of his own funeral arrangements, his family wouldn't have to do a thing. So he worked it all out with his friend, Neil, the longtime mortician from the funeral home across the river. One of my seven siblings lived in town, so Dad sent John over to Neil's place to select the casket, knowing that he's also friends with Neil and his younger partner. A couple of weeks later, I was in town, and Dad asked me, the eldest, to go approve John's choice.The casket was adorned on opposite corners with exquisite wood relief carvings of da Vinci's Last Supper and Michelangelo's Pieta, one pair at each end. I reported back that John had made a wonderful choice, as I described these iconic carvings. Having seen the Pieta in Rome's St. Peter's Basilica, Dad was immensely pleased, and so was I. At Eastertime, still at home, in his last lucid moments, Dad started to tell us a funny story about kicking the bucket. Laughing with him, we asked whether he was finished with the story, but its punch line slipped away with him. Later that evening we called Neil, wanting him to pick Dad up. That he had lost a dear friend was plain for all of us to see.The next afternoon brought fireworks. A longtime member of the church Dad had served rang the doorbell, and before she was through the door, burst out, I don't understand why Carl would have Neil do his funeral. Why is Carl going across the river to the Catholic funeral home? What's wrong with the Protestant one on this side? I just don't understand! We were all startled, as Dad's choice had seemed most natural, given his long friendship with Neil. Her outrage switched on a light bulb in my mind, and only then did I catch a glimpse of the significance of what had been chosen. It was a Catholic casket. Yes, an unadorned cross had replaced the crucifix, but the casket's imagery was unmistakably traditional, very catholic, if you will. At the visitation the next day, Neil pulled me aside, wanting us to know how his friendship with Dad had started. Years ago, he had purchased a very old funeral business that had been run into the ground. That first year, he did only six funerals, but Dad knew of his plight. Neil's words to me were, If it weren't for your dad, I wouldn't have succeeded in this business. Dad had directed business his way, helping him gain the footing he so desperately needed. We children had no idea of this basis of their friendship. Then John told his story about choosing the casket. It had caught his eye immediately, as the most prominently displayed piece there. After wondering what people would think and viewing other caskets, it dawned on him that this casket would not even have been there for anyone else. Neil had specifically ordered this coffin for Dad. Surely it symbolized their beautiful friendship, and we suspect that Dad knew. The next day, with grateful hearts, we proudly followed that Catholic casket up the aisle of the Baptist church. Dad's ministry had bridged many rivers, serving non-Baptists and the unchurched, helping persons who lived on society's margins. In Neil, he had found a soulmate."

Nelson Hart for The Holland, MI Sentinel

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