10 – A Funeral
Dr. Jeremiah Jones’s funeral was the event of the season, a time for great reunions and greater tears, as many funerals are. The Snarkians, at home on their own campuses and comfortable in their chapel, mingled and visited happily together beforehand, keeping their voices, squeals and giggles down to a decorous level with difficulty. As the hour approached, and the creeping hearse pulled up to the front door, the schools’ alumni, faculty, students, parents and friends proceeded inside and continued to visit, clustering on the right side of the long aisle. The awkward Snackians, drifting in from Leach Street and its environs in supporting clumps, naturally took to the left. When Drs. Greeter and Cloudee each took his own place on either side of the split pulpit, each man found himself before his own people. In a short, embarrassing moment, they looked at each other. Before them were the warring camps. Dr. Greeter saw before him Mrs. Hipp on the front row, with Miss Jones next to her. They were flanked by Jonquil and Dr. Hipp, a tiny wisp of a man with a shiny head and deep, round jowls. Dr. Hipp is never comfortable outside his rose garden. His role as seminary president is a decorative one, rather like Prince Charles. He’s good for a speech only if absolutely necessary, and usually his wife relieves him of such onerous duties. He did not look up at Dr. Greeter, but picked at his nails, inspecting them for any residual garden dirt.
And the camp extended beyond the two generals and their adjutants. The Sheperds, Waights, the elderly Smart sisters, all the church families from Mt. Moriah, the Busbys and Pandys and Scottys. And as Ernest Greeter’s eyes roamed over the flock on the epistle side, they fell suddenly on the face of his son. Billy! What was he doing here? The father’s eyes opened wide, and as if being summoned, the son’s eyes shifted quickly to the front, and they saw each other. The question in the father’s mind was written plainly on his face, and the son’s jaw dropped in dismay. The father was saddened to realize that his son’s presence would pester his mind and distract him throughout the service, and the son was saddened to realize that his father would have an hour to ruminate on his presence, and he had lost the element of surprise he might have used more to his advantage later in the day.
“Drat!” he said softly to himself.
Dr. Cloudee also examined his ranks. Most of his congregation was there. His wife sat well to the back, with her lady-friends, and he could tell by his wife’s eager expression that they were gossiping. Mrs. Grey from the tea shop, Mr. Shafer from the barber shop, Bernie the postman, his wife Estelle the postmistress – they sat primly, intent to see the inside of the chapel, newly-acquired by their denomination in a side-ways, adoptive sort of thievery. They assessed the chapel as small, dark, old, and slightly musty. Mrs. Grey liked the woodwork. Mr. Shafer wished the pews had cushions. Dr. Cloudee noticed his associate pastor on the front row. Reginald Heeler was turned, not toward the front, but sharply toward the epistle side. For a man in training to lead his troops, Mr. Heeler was remarkably inattentive to them. His pastor noted that the man’s eyes were fixed on the luxurious blond head in the opposite front row.
Then Mrs. Piper, Mr. Shrilling’s capable organist, began her subdued prelude. The crowd hushed. The Waights’ baby cried in the vestibule. Dr. Cloudee peered at his Scripture passages through his reading glasses:
Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I many know how frail I am.
Behold, thou has made my days as a handbreath; and mine age is as nothing before thee; verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.
Surely every man walketh in a vain show; surely they are disquieted in vain; he heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.
And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in thee.
Dr. Greeter also studied his text:
Lord, thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
For all our days are passed away in thy wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told.
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
“We fly away,” he thought. He looked at his son.
So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.
Dr. Cloudee stood, and the service began.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.” Dr. Cloudee’s voice thundered over his people’s heads.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.” Dr. Greeter’s voice reached into his people’s hearts.
The service continued in a dignified and solemn way, pleasing the high-church hearts who gathered there. All voices in the building were raised to the rafters in unison, in the prayer of invocation:
O God, who art our God, and our fathers’ God; thou whose compassions fail not, but who art the same yesterday, today, and forever, grant us now thy presence, we beseech thee, that our souls may be strengthened ….”
After this prayer, the musical portion of the service commenced. Mr. Shrilling felt strong before his podium, invincible with his mighty wand. And surely the musical genius’s slender baton is a wand of magic. He plays the only truly living instrument. With a slight whip of its tip, the sopranos burst into descant. When it rumbles and shakes in his fist, the basses reach into their deep chests for more air, and the altos take courage. With a lift of his brow, the tenors unflatten. With his mere fingers, he can swell his voices to a massive climax, or reduce them to a whisper of sound. What power!
Mr. Shrilling cleared his throat. He smiled at his 52-voice instrument. He raised his baton. But in the front row behind him, General Hipp smiled too. She gazed intently upon the organist, her agent in the enemy’s camp, whose timid face she could just see over the altos’ heads. Mr. Shrilling nodded to Mrs. Piper. He prepared himself for the beginning of the glorious “Inflammatus.”
However, Mrs. Piper, in a moment of cowardice, betrayed him. She began playing the opening lines of “In the Sweet By and By,” on one manual and without pedal, as Mrs. Hipp had instructed. It was, Mrs. Piper reasoned in her pusillanimous quivering, her chapel after all.
Mr. Shrilling nearly yelled his organist’s name. Had his wand been truly magical, he’d have silenced her with an electrical zap. Instead, he whirled around, cast one flaming and vituperative eye upon Mrs. Hipp, stepped nimbly from his podium, and in a matter of two measures of music, before the congregation could even think of singing, whisked his faithless organist from her seat. Mr. Shrilling was, as all in Greenfield knew, a finer organist than Mrs. Piper; he just preferred to be in a place of power. And he knew that, between a choir and an organ, he had chosen the mightier instrument. He adjusted the organ, pulled out almost all the stops, nodded menacingly at Athena Shepherd, and launched into the introduction of the “Inflammatus.” As Athena struck the opening note, a bracing high-G, she avoided her aunt’s eye.
My readers, I will be the first to avow that wars and rumors of wars within the church are to be abhorred, and are of all altercations the most disagreeable. Politicians may differ on points of policy, and lovers may argue over points of romance, but the religious among us fight to the death on theology. And although humans may take their government and their romancing very seriously, once a group of humans espouses a belief in God, they will claw and stab, bite and strangle to the death, defending their particular definitions of Him. We must deplore such fisticuffs and betrayals. In the midst of the battle, we must search for the true, the brave, the lion-hearted, the herald devoted to peace, the diplomat who stops the broils. Mr. Shrilling was no such man. Such a man is hard to find, and we must admit that, on the day of Dr. Jones’s funeral, the only one at peace and in harmony, was the man in the coffin.
The “Inflammatus” ended with a flourish of Mr. Shrilling’s fingers. He flung his hair back off his brow and threw a victorious grimace at the front row. Mrs. Hipp was exploding in wrath. She stood to her feet, squared her shoulders, lifted her husband to his feet as well, and began belting out the strains of “Victory in Jesus” to the quiet chapel. Within a few rasping notes, Miss Jones and several friends joined her. The congregation stood, and sang. Mr. Shrilling’s victory was snatched from his teeth.
He could easily have vanquished them all with the touch of his fingertips on the keys. But he refrained himself, remembering the event, the dead, the mourning. And thus the funeral proceeded, with brief interludes of Scripture and prayer, but with a steady exchange of blows – his Messiah, her “When We All Get to Heaven,” his “Lord’s Supper,” her “Sweet By and By.” The Hipp music was, of course a cappella. Mrs. Piper sat on a chair next to the organ, sniffling. And although she cast many threatening looks upon her niece, Mrs. Hipp did not get a rendition of “Shall We Gather” from her.
The congregation, of course, knew nothing. The revered doctors at the heads of their troops felt something was amiss, but all in all, the service proceeded with lots of music that was sung, and for most people, that is adequate. They don’t much care about the egos of the musical chefs as long as the food is served up.
The coffin was removed to the graveside, and the mourners filed out of the chapel, down the college walk, through the side gate and among the pine woods to the church yard. The warring factions mingled together. Rev. Shepherd and Mr. Heeler walked in step. Mrs. Cloudee cooed at Mrs. Waight’s baby. In a roundabout apology to her aunt, Athena Shepherd sang “Shall We Gather” in plaintive style, among the pine trees. And Emilia Greeter played her “Pavane.” The two pieces, inexplicably, blended into a musical whole filled with pathos, grief, and hope. Zeke, from the church manse, and Bowzer from the Cloudees’ backyard, howled in harmony. And Dr. Jones was buried.
Copyright by M.K. Christiansen