It could have been worse, luckily there was an hour visitation prior to the service, so I had a buffer. I slipped in the pew and looked around the intimate sanctuary at lots of familiar faces from my childhood in this small town church.
In a small church with members who have known each other for 30+ years, it's so comforting to come home. I was instantly greeted by hugs, waves and compliments. This is a group of devoted Christ followers who have prayed me through many of the ups and downs I've had in the wake of my liver diagnosis. They are loving people and they are fiercely devoted to one another.
However, the funeral was being held for a newcomer among them. A true prodigal son of one of their own. He was a man whose ties to the church were there because of his mom. As a 50+ year old man, he had spent the majority of his life as a nomad. His primary mode of transportation through one season of his life was hitchhiking. He had no permanent residence to put on a job application and his meals were never planned out more than a day in advance. He was homeless and went to great lengths to avoid the dangers of cold weather.
Early on in his life he'd followed the traditional path of husband and father, but for reasons unknown to me, he left and forged a life of singularity. After creating a life built on little more than the clothes on his back, his reality took a drastic turn two years ago when he received a diagnosis of cancer.
The analysis was grim and in order to add any days to his life, chemotherapy was a necessity. It is impossible for a homeless man to undergo such rigorous treatment. At a minimum you must have an address and a bed to sleep in at night.
Once a treatment plan had been established, he moved to my hometown to live close to his mom. He began to assemble a household brimming with donated furniture and rummage sale finds and he claimed an address in a tiny low income apartment complex on the far side of town.
Chemo was grueling and he got weaker before he would get stronger. He relied on his mom for rides and some meals. Friendships grew slowly for him among his neighbors, but time was not a luxury he could afford. Perhaps if he had been familiar with relationship building or had even experienced the camaraderie of co-workers when starting a new job, it would have been easier, but life as a hitchhiker doesn't teach you to develop friends....it forces you only to be friendly in situations that can benefit you the most. Like me, he was running late. He arrived at the apartment too late to find friendships that could be based on anything other than pity and compassion.
The cancer grew quickly and it was brutal. It was ruthless and he died in the hands of his mom and a few of his out of town siblings after his two year battle. Throughout the two years, there had been several weeks that he had felt well enough to go to church and he was a friendly face among the members of the tiny church. He was friendly, but perhaps not a friend.
The casket was decorated with one spray of flowers, and beneath it was a patchwork of ties that were among his favorites to wear for Sunday morning church. As a man of very little means, ties were a luxury. He looked forward to dressing up and accessorizing, perhaps an opportunity to dream of what his life could have been for a few hours each week.
I must admit I've never been at a funeral without a garden of flowers surrounding the casket. I have also never been at a funeral where there were not enough pall bearers to carry the casket. Pallbearers are the people, traditionally men, who carry the casket out of the church and into the hearse and again from the hearse to the graveside. A casket cannot be carried by any less than 4 individuals. It requires equal weight distribution on all four corners. The individuals must be strong and able to bear the weight without dropping it. This man did not have time to develop friends he could have called on as Pallbearers. His were men from the audience, they were not men who had 'carried' him through life. There was no childhood friend weeping as he was eulogized. This man simply never made it to the right place at the right time to develop those friends.
Who would bear the weight of your casket if your funeral was tomorrow? Would the individuals be picked at random to carry you or would you have taken the time to invest in relationships while you were living that would support you through life and would you make it a mutual investment? Start today.