My husband and I are in the church, and it is night. We are alone, except for the empty vessel that we are trying to avoid glimpsing as we tidy around his casket. Neither of us is good at funeral rituals. The hugs, the words of condolence, the moments of solemnity—we manage these things awkwardly when we don’t avoid them entirely. We have been grateful in this case to have claimed a role that is purely practical.
So while John empties the trash and cleans the restroom, I vacuum up fallen flower petals and sidewalk salt, and I whistle.
As far as I know, it is not sacrilege to whistle in church. The very man we have just waked has caught me whistling in church on more than one occasion, and he didn’t judge. In this case, it is “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” one of his favorites.
As I switch off the vacuum, I hear a rattle at the side door, and I go to admit another of his practical parishioners. Together, we consider the placement of the flowers. Tomorrow, there will be so many clergy around this altar; should we not clear a wider path? We shift arrangements here and there, and hope we aren’t accidentally adding to anyone’s grief. She lingers for a moment, reluctant to see the last of our friend and teacher. “He looks peaceful, don’t you think?” I don’t know.
When we can think of nothing else to do, my husband ties up the trash bag and I turn off all the lights, except the ones above the casket. We triple check the front doors. We don our coats and hats and look at each other in the darkened vestibule. It is difficult to leave him in here, alone.
But as I try to push open the side door of the church, I disturb a man who has spread his bedding there. It’s a cold night. The light snow that fell this morning stills forms a crust at the edges of the swept sidewalk. I wonder, “What would Mark do?” I ask the man if he needs help finding a better place to spend the night.
He says that the bright windows of the church made him hope it might be open. I explain about tonight’s wake and tomorrow’s funeral, and I tell him that a parishioner who is a police officer is planning to keep an eye on the place. It might not be the best night to sleep on the porch. I suggest he think it over while I pop back inside to try to look up some shelter ideas. If he’s still there when I come back out, I say, I might have an idea for him.
My husband and I sit in the pew next to the body of our much-loved pastor and consult our phones. We come up with a possibility, but as we check the door, we find our neighbor has moved on.
However, a different man is now making his way toward us, and even through the door’s beveled glass, I recognize him by his gait. When I worked at the library across the street, he was known as “a problem patron.” He is demanding, unreasonable, and sometimes intimidating. Not exactly scary, but not pleasant, either.
“Um, let’s just wait here another minute.” Tweaking John by the coat sleeve, I hastily back out of the vestibule and into the church. It really is difficult to leave.
On our third try, I decide that we’d better make one pass around the outside of the church before we head home, just to be sure everything’s as it should be. We toss the trash in the dumpster and circle around to the front doors, where we see a car sitting with headlights on. Recognizing the driver, I bend down to his window to see what’s up.
“I thought I’d, you know, keep him company,” he shrugs. “Catch up with him a little.” This is one of many good people we know who came to this neighborhood to do Christian service and never left. It occurs to me that his family may have received six of the seven sacraments right here in this church.
I explain that everything’s locked up now, and he stares out the windshield blankly. He pats my mittened hand, shifts into gear, and slowly turns toward home.
They are all still here, at our door: the homeless, the troubled, the bereaved. There are problems that don’t get solved, and tasks that are never finished. In all our wide, green, numbered days, there is all this work to do.