Words Kerrie Lacey
My high-heeled shoes go click-clack on the wet pavement, the wind picks up and ruffles my jacket, while the rain pauses to allow the grey clouds to regroup and collude in the morning sky. Hand-in-hand, my partner and I follow darkly-clad strangers towards an unassuming cream-bricked building, adorned with a simple white cross and the words ‘Lutheran Church’ written above the entrance. We step through the glass doors and into the embrace of the eccentric but kind-hearted aunty. Her eyes are red, but her smile is wide.
‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ I say. She says thank you, before welcoming the next in line.
The inside is just as bland as the outside, from the cream coloured carpet to the cream-coloured walls, right up to the cream-coloured ceiling. It has the musky fragrance of a second-hand store. In the foyer, elderly men and women are seated in plastic chairs, spaced exactly a meter-and-a-half from each other—they look like they could just as easily be going to the supermarket for a pint of milk as to a funeral. I see now why my partner suggested my black velvet hat might be, ‘A bit much for this crowd’. They give us the side-eye and we stand there awkwardly until the ‘charismatic’ uncle beckons us over. He booms ‘G’day’ to us from the front pew, like he’s just spotted us at a BBQ rather than at his mother’s funeral. We walk over, give muted hellos and air kisses, as though in compensation, and sit down.
I look around at the other attendees scattered amongst the empty pews and my heart sinks for those that couldn’t be here. Fucking ‘Rona. Straight ahead there’s a stage, with a wooden pulpit to the left; in the middle, there’s a long table with an open Bible and two fake candles on it. The wall behind is bare, except for a thin horizontal window like a strip of clear blue sky, and some stuck-on cardboard cut-outs of a dove falling from the sky into (presumably) the flames of hell. The overriding impression is one of austerity.
The Priest, or Pastor––as I’m soon corrected–– makes his way through the aisle to the stage. He’s dressed in a stiff white cloak with a bright green sash around his neck. He has eyebrows that give the illusion of spiders attacking his eyes. His mouth sits decidedly more to the right side of his face and it looks even more crooked when he smiles. His cheeks are flushed and beads of sweat are dotted on his forehead. He fiddles with his headset and tests his mic. After a beat, he opens his arms out wide and says in a thick New Zealand accent, ‘Helloi and wilcome to thee thenkssgiving seervuss for thee life of Gwinith Brissck’.
I pick up the program and begin to flick through it. On the cover it says: If we live, it is for the Lord that we live, and if we die, it is for the Lord that we die. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8). On the second page, it says: Gwyneth fell asleep in Jesus—These words draw me in, my mind-expanding and contracting as I try to make sense of this paradigm, so utterly foreign to me.
Then I hear the Pastor say, ‘I unvite yew to rise and sing her favourite sohng: There is a Redeemer,’ and my thoughts fall to the ground. An organ sounds from hidden speakers, and everyone stands in unison. As far I can tell, there’s no discernible melody. A man behind me sings loudly, albeit, out of tune, but with enough conviction that he leads the room in song. Apparently, volume trumps talent in this scenario.
Then the Pastor says, ‘We may be seated,’ and reads a psalm, ‘The Lord is like a father to his children,’ to which the attendees respond like a well-versed zombie chorus, ‘tender and compassionate to those who fear him.’ Wait, what? So, His love is conditional… based on fear? But, before I can fully digest this little nugget of information, the charismatic uncle strides up to the pulpit to deliver the eulogy, so I put it away to nibble on later. He talks about what a good Christian woman his mother was and how we’re here to celebrate her life. He throws out jokes, like boomerangs collecting laughter and claps from the audience.
‘Is this a 21st speech?’ my partner whispers to me in an undertone. There is no mention of the death that brought us here, except to say we can ‘Take comfort in the knowledge that she is with the Lord in heaven’.
Next, tributes from friends and family come rolling in, starting––as you would expect––with her husband of sixty-plus-years. He speaks from the pulpit like he’s delivering a church service about the journey of his wife’s faith and love for Jesus. They met at church (of course). He is dry-eyed and unemotional, although he laughs about how Gwyneth would interrupt his speeches at church conferences to have her say from the front seat––all while she was darning his socks, no less. It was unusual for a woman to be present, let alone speak up like that, he says, but that was Gwyneth; she was ‘unique’.
The word unique is mentioned by everyone who talks about her. Thrifty is another. Friends laugh about the time she picked them up from the airport and made a ‘hold-onto-your-hat’ U-turn across a three-lane highway because she’d just spotted the cheapest petrol she’d seen all day.
Other friends speak of her soft spot for those on the fringes of society, and recollect how she welcomed them into the congregation: ‘If you were standing alone in a crowd she would surely find you and introduce you to somebody’. I remember the time she did that to me, only I had a very different take on it. I was quite happy with my own company, in fact, I preferred it to the awkward conversation that ensued after she came up and grabbed me by the elbow, introduced me to a bunch of strangers as someone who ‘works very part-time in a frock shop’, and then walked off and left me there to fend for myself. Without the Christian lens to interpret her behaviour and personality, I had simply thought she was an arse-hat—maybe I’m the arse-hat? Highly likely, but still, I couldn’t help wondering how she would be perceived without the prism of her faith?
One of her sons says she taught him forgiveness… but gives away no details about how she did so. There is no mention of love and other fuzzy feelings, so I was left with the impression that perhaps this had been a hard lesson learnt.
A grandson talks about how she always had random things stored at her house: old phones, pots and pans, broken vacuum cleaners and the like and how he amused himself playing with these things when he had stayed at her house. The cavernous void of what was not said left plenty of room for the imagination to play.
The only one to mention the L-word or shed a tear is her youngest daughter; the ‘cool’ aunty. When her tear turns into a torrent, as she chokes out ‘I miss you, Mum,’ her father is quick to come to the rescue: directing his granddaughter to take over, as though showing loss and grief at a funeral is unsightly, unwanted and fundamentally not okay.
Soon, the Pastor is back to encouraging everyone to take comfort in the Lord, ‘For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body) we will have a house in heaven’. Then, more woeful music and dreadfully dreary bargaining in the form of hymns:
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction
Land me safe on Canaan’s side
Songs of praises
I will give to Thee
Followed by a pledge, in the form of the Apostles Creed, ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth… I believe in … the holy Christian Church…’ Clearly, the thought that there might be those present who do not believe in the same thing was unfathomable. The ‘cool’ aunty and her family are, however, staring silently at their shoes while all the pledging, pleading and praying is going on around them. Her husband and their two daughters are also the only brown-skinned people in the room.
The Pastor says something about Jesus winning the battle against death and the crowd claps and shouts ‘Praise Jesus!’ He continues, ‘In the sure hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, we take the body of our sister in Christ to its last resting place. May the Lord give you comfort and peace’.
The closing song plays while the grandchildren gather around the coffin, taking their positions as pallbearers. People sing the closing song as they walk the coffin down the aisle, ‘You are stronger than dying’ and outside, where the sky is grey, the rain is drizzling and the wind is ice-cold, ‘Jesus, please watch over us’, and place Gwyneth in the hearse, ‘Jesus, please take care of us’.