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Friday, April 24, 2009

A Funeral For a Friend

Today I was witness to the most interesting farewell I've ever attended. At noon, I went to the graveside funeral of a young friend. The bright sun and pleasant temperature were accompanied by a warm, steady breeze. In the cemetery, sixty or so people gathered in ideal conditions to say their final goodbyes to the deceased. The hearse arrived and the pallbearers dutifully carried the coffin to the grave. So far, the funeral seemed pretty normal, didn't it? The actual service began, and I realized I was witnessing an event that blended several customs in a very unique fashion. My friend had been a veteran, a Christian, and a Cherokee Native American. All of these associations were represented this day at the grave site as part of the last rites. First of all, three Cherokee women dressed in long, homemade skirts and native Cherokee attire started a small fire and cleansed the area around the grave with its smoke. They used their hands as if to funnel the small white clouds to their release overhead. The smoke smelled aromatic, almost like sweet incense as it wafted through the air. Its subtle odor gently lifted my spirits as it reminded me of campfires and the hearth of home. Next, the Christian minister offered a prayer, followed by three young singers, two girls and a boy, harmonizing to "Angel Band" and "I'll Fly Away." Their voices were heartfelt and clear, wavering sometimes in pitch, which added to the human element of their presentation. The old songs drew several in the crowd to mouth the lyrics and nod in apparent approval. "When the shadows of this life have gone,I'll fly away;Like a bird from prison bars has flown,I'll fly away," they joyously sang. With both of my feet upon the lush, green grass and both of my eyes discovering their home-spun sincerity, my own soul began to take wing. Then, the American Legion Commander gave thanks to the deceased and his family for my friend's military service. As the flags of the color guard stood faithful witness, the Chaplain spoke,“For as much as God hath taken out of the world the soul of our departed comrade, we therefore commit his (her) body to the ground to sleep and his soul to endless peace to rest. The dust returneth to earth as it was, and the spirit returneth unto God who gave it.” These brief, fitting remarks supported in fellowship and belief by two disciplined lines of crisply uniformed veterans were followed by the precise folding of the American flag, its solemn presentation to the family, the traditional three volley musketry salute, and then "Taps" from a solitary bugle. The final solemn notes echoed among the stones and trees in the otherwise silent cemetery as even the birds held silent for the dutiful remembrance. As the last notes of the bugle faded, the Cherokee women sang a mournful song that hearkened the return of the sacred eagle to earth to claim a new, bright day for the Cherokee nation. The tonal native refrain put me in mind of a very soft, soulful chant filled with eternal hope and spiritual power. The song was sung with the light accompaniment of a small native drum, setting a natural end with its simple rhythm. Finally, one of the Native women lit a pipe to enable her heart to speak true, and she silently offered smoke to the Seven Sacred Directions (north, south, east, and west) representing the four seasons as spiritual ties to the earth and to the remaining directions of above, below, and within signifying the sun of the Great Creator, the earth Mother, and the heart of the self. This acknowledgement of the Native Medicine Wheel held people at its center and then illustrated that all worlds, states, and beings are greatly affected by the myriad of forces all around and within them. After the woman released the smoke from her ceremonial pipe, the crowd began the friendly task of wishing relatives and others best wishes and condolences for their loss. I walked away with a happy, peaceful spirit as others milled about. For me, the striking nature of the funeral today became the fluidity and common theme in the ceremonies I had just witnessed. Christians, Native Americans, and military personnel had all answered a similar call to the grave site. All were there to honor the life of a departed human being and to help usher his soul to its rightful place in the afterlife. And, all of the ceremonies I had witnessed seemed to flow naturally within the context, although each separate part of the funeral was different in content. In fact, I left having believed I had just witnessed a coming together of all parts of my friend's character-- something I had rarely been privileged to understand at most funerals I have attended. The remainder of my afternoon was spent in putting reason to the uplifting attitude the funeral had instilled in me. At last, I came to grips with my experience. My soul felt uplifted by the common belief in faith and deliverance present at the funeral. To honor my friend, all of the groups at the funeral displayed their firm faith in God and mankind while assuring deliverance of his soul to a better life. As part of the proof provided by each group, they singularly exhibited very meaningful commitments fulfilled by the deceased. And, all present who witnessed this harmony shared the peace of my friend's final rest. Now, I remember looking at the foreboding coffin and believing it might be a beautiful painted mount my friend swiftly rode to heaven.
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