Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Death, be not proud
As a teenager, I used to earn a couple of Rand during school holidays, by playing the organ at the local crematorium. Yes, I admit, on the scale of things, it was a somewhat odd thing to do. I mean, after all,most of my friends were working as packers in the local Checkers. One or two of them had holiday jobs at the local movie house. Me? I played the organ for funerals.
It was pretty good money, for doing relatively little. I could virtually play “Abide with me” in my sleep. Handel’s Largo I could have done blindfolded and with someone tickling my feet. There were relatively few surprises. The Priest or Minister would usually be the only person singing along and the services were relatively short – never more than half an hour. So I could usually end up with six or seven services a day and pay was for each individual funeral – so I was pretty much in clover.
I took a book along to read during the sermons. I wore a sad expression on my face. That was all I needed to do. Except on one day.
On this day, the undertaker asked me if I wouldn’t mind helping carry one of the bodies into the chapel, because the trolley had broken, or something. I was sixteen. I was happy playing the organ and ignoring the coffin. I was not used to schlepping bodies around. But I agreed. He made it sound as though it was the most normal thing in the whole world – which, of course, for him, it was!
I was surprised by the weight of the body. How four of us battled to carry the coffin. And I was completely overwhelmed by something else, which I had really not been prepared for – the smell of death. Even with the overpowering scent of flowers on the coffin, it was there. It was unmistakeable.
The undertaker noticed my reaction. “Oh, sorry!” he said, “This one isn’t too fresh”. I reeled. I had not expected such a casual approach to the issue. “Yes!” sniggered one of the others, “Maybe we need to get an air freshener or something. They are going to notice, for sure!”
Last Good Friday, I attended the service at my local parish church, St Michael’s Observatory. It was my first experience of a really high Catholic Good Friday service. My upbringing has been much more in the tradition of preaching on the seven last words from the cross – which, both when I was preaching on them and when I was listening to someone else doing the preaching, almost always left me feeling a little like it was me that was being crucified. So, the service at St Michael’s was, in some aspects, completely new.
It began on entry into the church. From the doorway to the High Altar was a completely unexpected riot of colour! Rose petals had been scattered thickly in the aisle. (I subsequently discovered that this is normal practise where there is a procession of the Blessed Sacrament – it is nothing I had ever seen before!)
But the effect was astonishing. This rampant shock of colour against the stark bleakness of the undressed stone church. And it is not only the sense of sight which is assaulted. It is also the sense of smell. The perfume of roses - heady, overwhelming, intoxicating. Almost too much to take in.
And the silence. Heavy. Solemn. Profound.
Suffice to say, it was one of the most moving and profound services I have ever experienced, in my life. The music, the words of the liturgy, the readings and the solemnity had me, at one point, in tears. (Now, believe me, that is no great feat – I cry in “Bambi” - but still… ).
I was moved, profoundly. And one of the memories which those scattered rose petals brought back to me was my first experience of carrying a coffin. Of flowers used to mask the smell of death. Of my first realization that one day, undertakers would, most likely, be carrying my body, in a coffin, too.
Good Friday brings us all, if we will let it do so, to that profound moment. The moment when our world goes dark and our senses are no more and our bodies are carried to their place of decay. At that point, we can if we choose to, smell the roses. Smell the roses.