Once again, I was an interloper at what was the most sacred of human rites. To say I felt uncomfortable was an understatement. Even though my presence was required, albeit informally until the necessary rituals were completed, there was a nagging sense that I was an intruder, an outsider, and that I didn’t belong. This sense was only heightened by the fact that other than the priest in his official capacity, and myself, there were only two others present, and the dour expressions they wore told me that they didn’t really want to be there, either.
I remained, though. Not only because I was being paid to stand just outside of the periphery of the three gathered at the graveside, but also because something stark and remorseful ate at my bones in response to the lack of mourners in attendance. No one was crying. Not the young woman on one side of the coffin, nor the middle aged man on the other side, and certainly not the priest, whose sonorous voice was the only noise to be heard that warm and lazy spring afternoon.
The young woman was the deceased’s daughter. She was dressed in customary black: a long and formless dress, sturdy, low-heeled shoes and a flat, broad brimmed hat with a veil that draped mysteriously over her face. Why she went to such a length to disguise herself was anyone’s guess. She was hardly a stranger to either Father Bryan or myself, having met both of us a few times before this afternoon’s service to make arrangements, and there was nothing in her demeanour during those few brief meetings to suggest that she was shy, or indeed, had anything to hide.
As for the middle-aged man... well, I didn’t know him from the proverbial bar of soap. And judging by the way the young woman kept her distance, it would be safe to assume she didn’t really know him either. For all anyone knew, he could have been a drifter from off the street, who happened to spy the makings of a funeral and decided to blend in with the crowd in order to access the buffet that would no doubt be in store at the wake. Such callousness was not new. Indeed, part of my job was to keep an eye out for such vultures, just in case. However, given the man’s deportment and the fact that his dark grey suit looked too expensive to belong to a casual “funeral crasher,” I gave him the benefit of the doubt. In a crowd of four, I didn’t wish to cause an unnecessary ruckus, and besides, the young woman had been somewhat adamant that the affair would be neat, simple and quick. In other words, a graveside ceremony with a thimbleful of prayers and ritual, and no wake.
On the surface, the request would seem cold, devoid of any emotion at all. Yet, it was not uncommon. Modern life, it seemed, robbed people of so much time that they couldn’t even afford an hour or more to mourn for their dead. Only in this case, it wasn’t the commodity of time that dictated the young woman’s needs.
“Mother was not a Catholic,” she had explained, sounding both adamant and apologetic at the same time. On me, the distinction was lost, though Father Bryan nodded in understanding.
Hence, here we were this afternoon, a crowd of four, participating in an abridged ceremony. At the foot of the grave, Father Bryan held court. His voice washed over proceedings, utterly calm, totally powerful, inflected with the experience of decades of attending to the souls of mankind. For a man fast approaching seventy, he still stood tall and straight. Sure, he was gaunt of features, and his limbs were spindly, but there was still vitality in that body. Presently, he was at the penultimate stage of the ceremony, the bit that still brought shivers down my body even though I’d seen it countless times now. It was quite a piece of theatre, done with such clinical practice that unless your focus was on the priest’s foot, you’d swear it was magical.
“...and we commit our sister in faith to the ground,” Father Bryan intoned. No sooner had the word ‘ground’ been spoken, the winches on the frame bearing the coffin burst into life, and the coffin began its descent into the earth. As the coffin disappeared, he continued: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust...”
While this happened, my heart skipped a few beats, as it seemingly always did. Despite the best attentions of the sun beating away at the black suit I wore, a sliver of cold wormed its way down my spine and an involuntary shudder coursed through me. And then, as suddenly as it came, it went, but not without tracing the hairs at the nape of my neck with its cold fingers for a final fleeting moment.
All that was left was the closing. Father Bryan crossed himself, and then with the litheness of a man many years younger, he stooped to where a small shovel poked out of a token mound of dirt. Seconds later, the first clod struck the top of the coffin, the sound overly loud in the stillness of the grounds. One by one, the rest of the mourners followed suit; approached the grave, gathered a tiny clod of earth on the end of the shovel, and added it to the meagre few that went before it. With that, all was done.
The graveside ceremony had barely clocked ten minutes.