Years ago, as a pastor, I noticed when one of our ordinarily regularly attending senior adult men stopped attending his men’s Bible study class, as well as Sunday morning worship. I contacted the man I’ll call Bill and asked if we could talk about his abrupt change in attendance.
When we talked, he acknowledged the change and reported that, among several age-related physical changes, he was having some urinary difficulties and was, for the first time in his adult life, losing some control of his bodily functions. Bill had chosen not to attend his church, he said, because he was trying to avoid an embarrassing situation.
“Bill had chosen not to attend his church, he said, because he was trying to avoid an embarrassing situation.”
As his fortysomething male pastor, I assured Bill I understood and that, as best I could, I wanted to walk with him during his aging and care for him in any way I could, no matter what.
A couple of years went by and, as suddenly as he had stopped attending, Bill was back, not only in worship, but also in that same men’s Bible study class, with the very same teacher, in the very same room, filled with the very same men who were roughly his chronological peers. I welcomed Bill back to church and, after a few weeks, we had the opportunity to speak privately. When I had the chance to ask him why, after his long absence, he had returned to both worship and Bible study, he said that, notwithstanding his appreciation for worship and my preaching, it had to do mostly with his desire to return to his Bible study class.
As I was silently recovering from his obvious placement of my homiletical work in a secondary position and as I was preparing to congratulate him on his recognition of a deeply personal need to study his Bible with his fellows, Bill shocked me with his further response: “Well, to be perfectly honest, pastor, I started thinking about it and concluded that, with my several terminal illnesses, it won’t be long before my wife will be asking the guys in my Bible study class to serve as my pallbearers and I wanted to help her by making it harder for them to refuse that request!”
“It won’t be long before my wife will be asking the guys in my Bible study class to serve as my pallbearers and I wanted to help her by making it harder for them to refuse that request!”
Although in something of a ministerial shock, I couldn’t help but appreciate Bill’s pragmatism in the face of his own aging and death, as well as his recognition of the values of the human connections that are the fruit of regular class-oriented Bible study, along with his compassionate desire to remain a person of credibility. (Ministry is often a complex thing.)
As I watched the ceremonies surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth, and especially as I watched the removal of her body in that highly regulated, slow-step processional down the Magic Mile, from her Scottish residence to St. Giles Cathedral, I remembered Bill and his reasoning.
Like most senior ministers of any tenure at all, I have presided over more funerals and memorial services than I am able to count; surely none have been so highly watched as Elizabeth’s. Through it all, I often have watched as a small, nervous group of (usually, but not always) men, sometimes in recently purchased, ill-fitting suits, are instructed by a funeral home employee in the rudiments of casket-carrying, with an emphasis on dignity and safety and the avoidance of anything that looks like at-risk panic. The irony is that for the coffin bearers, it is both a high honor and a not-to-be-sought-after privilege, but for the dark-suited funeral home guy, it’s another day at the office.
In recent years, I also have noticed that the job of coffin carrying has become less prominent than it once was. The COVID pandemic has made any public service difficult, if not impossible. In addition, the choice of many families to use cremation and to have a separate, family only graveside service, coupled with the emphasis on using the memorial service as a more positive celebration of life, have combined to limit both the visibility and the prominence of body transport when death occurs.
Watching those young, stalwart military servicemen who were so privileged to be selected to carry the casket of the queen, I couldn’t help but recall that European pallbearers often carry out that duty in a slightly different manner than we do in the States. On our side of the ocean, the pallbearers are usually instructed to grab firmly with the right hand the handle of a heavy, highly ornamented and expensive casket, while keeping the other hand and arm stiffly by the other side of the body. Thus, the carriers are able to keep the dead body “at arm’s length.”
Europeans, however, often carry a smaller and simpler wood box with no handles. They are instructed to get much more of their bodies underneath the casket, reaching across the bottom of the box with their arms and placing their hands on the shoulders of their equal and opposite counterparts on the other side. They lift the casket above, or at least as high as, and in close proximity to their heads, and as such, become far physically closer to the body of the deceased than the pallbearers we are accustomed to seeing.
Remembering both an anonymous man from yesterday whom I have chosen to call Bill and a highly decorated and well-known woman called Elizabeth, whom the world rightly honors, I have been served a useful reminder — valid not only in coffin-carrying, but in the daily living of all of our everyday, terminal lives.
We all should return to regular Bible study and worship, to help us in the reflection on God’s word, but also in the incessant need to become ever more persons of the highest credibility. And surely, we should take a lesson from our friends across the pond and begin, again, to stand closer to others, to lock arms, shoulders and bodies as fellow travelers in the toils of earthly living, and to lift each other higher than ourselves.
Bob Newell has served as a university professor and administrator, a local church pastor and a cross-cultural missionary. He and his wife, Janice, now live in Georgetown, Texas, and he serves churches as transition coach and intentional interim pastor. They were the founders and remain advocates of PORTA, the Albania House in Athens, Greece.
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