All Saints

November 1, 2006

Today is All Saints’ Day, a day to remember the dead and to look ahead to our reunion.

I presided over only one funeral during the past year. The deceased, “J,” was not a man I had ever met; I was asked to do the funeral because his 75-year-old mother is a member of my congregation along with several of his twelve brothers and sisters. Like almost everyone in my church, J was a Yaqui. He lived on the reservation, which lies outside Tucson some 90 miles to the south of Guadalupe (where my church is). His pregnant wife and three children lived there with him; they are Catholic as are the vast majority of Yaquis.

J had been in car accident twenty years ago that had injured him badly. Since that time, he suffered from frequent seizures. The seizures were exacerbated by an on-again, off-again drinking habit. He had been at a party with some of his friends, had drunk too much, and had a seizure. No one present either knew what to do or was able to act, so he died. I never found exactly how old he was, but it was somewhere around 45.

Yaquis make vigil over their dead. The extended family, young and old, stay up with the body, preferibly in the church, the day before the burial. The church used in this case was the “All Tribes Assembly of God” situated on the edge of the res. Brother Richard is the pastor there, a soft-spoken man, a guitar player, and the one who was available to lead the family in prayer during the night, since I couldn’t come until the morning. J died in July, so the funeral was scheduled to begin at 8am so that the graveside service and the burial could take place before it got unbearably hot in the desert cemetery.

When I got there, young ones were still rubbing their eyes and climbing out of sleeping bags spread out in the pews. Men were drinking coffee and looking at the mountains. J’s mother was seated with some of her daughters under a ramada beside the church. As the church slowly filled to standing room only, brother Richard strummed his guitar softly. I put on my alb and stole and started walking to the front of the sanctuary. I think this made Richard a little nervous, so he went to the microphone and kicked the service off a little early. The musicians had not yet arrived, but the funeral had begun.

I took over and did my usual prayers and other words. There was less crying than what I’m used to at funerals, but I guess they had been grieving all night long. How much can you cry? I was taught in seminary to never, ever let a casket remain open during a funeral as this puts attention on the dead–and by extension, death itself–instead of on life, the new life of the resurrected. The casket remained open through this funeral, though. When I commended J to God, I was able to walk away from the pulpit and place my hands on him, to bless him publicly and physically.

The funeral was almost over, and I was about to give the blessing, when a bunch of mariachis came in through the crowd standing in front of the door. I said, “We will now have some special music,” and sat down. The mariachis came to the front, tuned their violins and guitarrons, and played several melodies and sang. Many in the congregation joined in the singing. When they were done, I blessed the people, and we all made our way slowly out of the church and to the cemetery.

By the time we got there, the temperature was in the high 90s. The cemetery had few living plants, no grass, no shrubs, just red dirt. The graves were slightly mounded and marked with wooden crosses that came in various sizes. An awning had been set up by the funeral home near the open hole. Family members sat on chairs while the rest of the people gathered in what shade they could find. The hearse arrived, and the funeral directors again opened the casket. Right before I started the brief graveside prayers, the funeral director handed me about five metal crucifixes, each about 8 inches long. He said that I should give them to the wife, mother, and other close family. As a Presbyterian, I don’t really know what to do with crucifixes. So I held them like a many-pronged tool in one hand and my prayerbook in the other. When I had finished saying my prayers, I put my book down and approached the open casket. I took each one of the crucifixes and crossed them over the dead man saying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” I touched them to his forehead and to his chest, and then I handed them out to the close family. I’m not sure if this was right or wrong, but it seemed appropriate at the time.

After the casket was closed and lowered into the hole, everyone, all 150 or so, took time to throw dirt in on top. Then, in a move that is not customary for Yaquis (I asked), the backhoe came in and buried the grave right up to the top while everybody was still there watching. I found out that J had worked in public maintenance on the reservation, and one of his jobs had been to dig and bury graves, so the men who were operating the backhoe were his former workmates. The wife had requested that they bury him while she was there; she wanted to see him underground.

After this, most went back to the church to eat. Alex and I chose to get going.

I still don’t understand what sort of grace has put me in this place. For me, being a minister is a lot about going with the flow. I don’t make theological or practical demands on my parishioners because what do I know that they don’t? This funeral was like that–it seemed to do itself. I felt like I was on a liturgical wave among people who are both my own and not my own. On All Saints’ Day, we remember these things that both are and are yet to come.


6 Responses to “All Saints”

  1. I once heard it said that once the gods have decided that it is time for a man to die, they direct his steps to take him to the appropriate place at the appropriate time. I believe that same idea holds true for many of the important changes in our lives. Death aside, I do not believe that we are without choice. Rather, the heavens try to lead us to where we are needed. We can always choose to go another way, but it often does not feel “right.” Maybe, for reasons we do not know, this is where the heavens need you be at this time.

    Then again, I’m a half-mad pagan who lives on whiskey, Guinness, coffee, and cigarettes half the time, so I may not know what the hell I’m talking about!

  2. sonofbruce Says:

    You sound like the kind of minister I wouldn’t mind presiding over my own funeral.

    I read some books on the Yaquis a few years back, being fascinated with their syncretic approach to religion, their deerdancer songs, and the incredible story of their resistance against the Mexican army. All of it so much more interesting than the B.S. fantasies of Carlos Castaneda.

  3. sheepdays Says:

    RH–I don’t know. For a pagan, you sound kind of Calvinist! Are you sure you’re not a Presbyterian?

    Dave–Thanks for the compliment–though I hope you’re not planning your funeral too soon. Castaneda is a hoot. What’s interesting is how popular his fictions became. Did you read Spicer? I’m poking through some of his ethnographies now for another project.

  4. sonofbruce Says:

    Spicer, yes. And a couple more recent works; I can hunt up the titles if you’re interested.

    The most charitable thing I’ve read about Castaneda from other anthropologists was that he was a kind of trickster figure. But he seemed serious enough about making a pile of dough and attracting a circle of sycophants.

  5. Quite sure. My notions of this have no moral judgements/overtones which you see in Calvinism (that whole “your fate to be save (ie – good) has already be determined”). Plus, there is fact that these ideas can be found in many pre-Christian philosophies. You see aspects of it in ancient Greece, ancient Japan, India, and Celtic/Druid traditions. The distinction is that most of these do not carry any inherent statements of good or evil, simply fate.

  6. Alex (aka Maggie Beth) Says:

    Hey Rogue Historian —

    Your description of Calvinism in your last post is a bit of “Calvinism-lite” or “Calvinism for Dummies”… I would recommend Dr. Shirley Guthrie’s books “Always Being Reformed” or “Christian Doctrine” for a more nuanced (read: accurate) understanding of predestination and other mis-understood doctrines.


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