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Uncle Wayne's Funeral

The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
Lynchburg, Tennessee
February 13, 2011

Somewhere passing over Monteagle, the years fold over themselves like the images on a sensu fan.  I am thirty-seven, driving my dad over the mountain as we head to another funeral.  And I am ten, sitting in the passenger seat shifting gears while he works the clutch.  I am eighteen, driving up to Tullahoma to visit my father’s first cousins – my “Aints and Uncles” – before I go off to Basic Training.  I am seven, and the hands on the wheel are my grandmother’s as we float through the fog – the backseat of her enormous white Cadillac piled with Goldfish crackers, Fudge Stripes, and Wet Ones.

As our car rolls across the viaduct, each of those memories settle around me.  They are weightless, and yet I can feel the solidity of their touch.  By the time we reach the funeral home, everyone is there.  Decades of mourners mingle in my sight.  Men in polyester slacks and enormous sideburns stand next to women in tailored suits with bobbed hair.  Resting in the casket is my Uncle Wayne.  But the body is also that of my Grandma Sue, and of her daughter Barbara Sue, and her daughter Laura Sue.  It is my Uncle Rollie, Wayne’s father; and it is my Grandpa Al wearing the combat decorations I carefully arranged on his uniform the night before.

It is my Uncle Wayne’s funeral, but it is every funeral.  I am sitting in the congregation, making inappropriate jokes with my cousin William.  I am standing at the pulpit, my alb heavy across my back.  I am a child, off to the side mourning, and Uncle Wayne is there quoting First Thessalonians.  I am a teenager, and William and I are still swapping the same bits of minor sacrilege.  So many of the hands that held mine in prayer through these services, I’ve seen them lying still in the coffin before us.  And now they rest on my shoulders as another of our kin has left our temporary congregation to join the eternal one.

It is at the cemetery that I can see them the most clearly.  We are huddled in the cold rain and we are standing in the warm sunshine.  There are only a few grave markers in the family plots, and when I look more closely their number has tripled.  There are bugles playing Taps, and the notes form a shape-note harmony with the mumbled words of the Lord’s Prayer.  I can see each of the crowds around the mounded dirt, sometimes smaller as a few of their numbers enter their rest, and then swelling again as children and grandchildren join their ranks.  It is Uncle Wayne’s graveside service, and it is every one that I have ever attended and every one I ever will – including my own.

Clothing changes, but the scripture passages do not.  The shapes and shades of the cars change, but the tears and the laughter are the same.  Even the echoes of Spring in the ladies’ perfume are at once both new and remembered.  The children playing among the headstones are also the frantic parents chasing after them, and they are the silent elders carefully making their way to be seated under the tent.  At every funeral we are different, and staring at my great-grandparents’ marker I am certain that we have not changed at all.

The holiness of a place is not in the prayers that are said over it or the words carved into the stones.  The Lynchburg cemetery is holy to me because it is one of those thin spaces where I realize that the lines we use to divide our lives into days and years are illusions.  It is a holy place, because there I can see that the depth of my life comes not in the moment, but in the lifetimes that fold together to make my history and my legacy. 

Someday my great-grandson’s feet may be found shuffling back and forth exactly where mine now stand.  To him, my name may only be letters etched in granite, and he may find all that he is seeing to be new and strange.  But the day will come when he realizes that it is not so new and not so very strange at all.  Those jokes that make him giggle, William and I whispered them in his ear.  That passage of Scripture that gives him comfort, Uncle Wayne scribbled it on a note and placed it in his hand.  The strong arms that his father uses to hold him, those are my dad’s arms.  And when his mother kisses him on the cheek, that’s my Grandma Sue he feels kneeling down to kiss him too.  I’m there as well, though he may not know it, because they are the sum of who I am.  The memories of who we are will be his future.

When we leave behind the fried chicken, sweet tea, and pecan pie, my dad and will I cross back over the top of the mountain.  I know that time will start to flow for me again, and its trickery will make the past seem distant.  But we will be back, father and son, boy and man, grandfather and child.  When we are standing here again, we will realize we never left.