Notes to Prepare for a Rural Midwestern Funeral
- Everyone, or almost everyone, will be older than fifty. A few young families--the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the deceased--will sit in the front pews and at the end of the day will return to their lives in the city. Everyone else will return to farmhouses on plots of land that once held twelve families and now only hold one. This group will come together, again and again, as the church and surrounding town slowly empty. And one day, like a dry well, there will be no more parishioners to retrieve. All will be quiet and still.
- Funeral attire will be flexible. Black attire is not required. A suit is not required. A dress is not required. Close-toed shoes are not required. A tie is not required. Jeans are acceptable, especially when paired with well-polished cowboy boots. Wear a cross, even if you don't believe.
- A group called something like the Grace Notes or the Holy Rollers will sing at least one of the following hymns: "Amazing Grace," "The Old Rugged Cross," or "How Great Thou Art." The singers' voices will be high and clear and thin, the accompanying piano just slightly out of tune. They will smile as they form each word, seemingly peaceful, placid, and serene. You will find yourself mouthing, "I was once was lost but now am found / was blind but now I see."
- At the graveside, all the reserved mourners will stand in a wide semicircle around a tent, leaving a respectful gap for the family, who sit on velvet-green-covered chairs that rise out of the ground like little hillocks, artificially verdant on the yellowing grass.
- The sun will beat down on all of you as you wait for the casket to be lowered. You'll feel the sweat drip down the back of your neck with your head bowed for prayer, left hand placed over right. The group will return to the church quickly; high noon is no time for a picnic.
- If you're lucky, there will be a luncheon. If you are luckier, the food will be warm: roast beef or fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans, oven-roasted rolls. Others will have brought macaroni and potato salads, homemade cakes, warm cookies. If not, the table will hold cold cuts of deli meat and freshly unwrapped Wonderbread, a bottle of ranch dressing standing sentry next to a plate of chopped raw vegetables. There may even be a bowl of chips--do yourself a favor and grab and extra handful.
- The luncheon will be held in the basement of the church, which doubles as a reception hall and Sunday school classroom. The decor will probably feature bright posters filled with block letters extolling a strong work ethic, "cheerful sacrifice," obedience, kindness. Along one wall, a laminated, cartoon-illustrated timeline of the Bible stapled to the wall will feature a Jesus with golden brown hair and kind blue eyes. Across the wall, a paper cutout of a man in chainmail and a helmet, his weapons labeled "Sword of the Spirit" and "Breastplate of Righteousness" and "Shield of Faith," will smile at you with glued-on googly eyes.
- No one will cry during the service, the sermon, the luncheon. The tears will come in the car, while you are driving across the prairie, past the rusted silos and rotting sheds, towards the open sky. The weight of all the losses ahead and behind will fill you as you leave the high grasses and drive into the woods, overrun with poison ivy and thorny brambles, silent except the soft rustle of ghostly deer darting through the trees, just out of view.