Sunday, July 19, 2009

Northern Plains Perspective(s)

I spent most of Saturday with a parish family as we buried the wife's dad in a little churchyard cemetery out past Brandt (northwest from Brookings if you are looking at a map).

Just off the Interstate we were treated to the site of a farm auction - in this case working farmers in pickups or green & gold John Deere vehicles buying rusty (but certainly classic) tractors and manual farm tools as decor for their yards.

From the County road, we could see the little Lutheran church at the cemetery from a good distance away. A congregation has been there since the late 1800s, although a fire destroyed their original building and they put up a newfangled chapel in 1911.

The cemetery is beautifully maintained by a "bachelor farmer" (I'm just learning about this particular Northern Plains breed.) Some of the gravestones are getting hard to read, and some that are legible are in Norwegian so, as the groundskeeper says, "You can't read 'em anyway."

Should have been 105 degrees in mid-July, but we were blessed with a sunny day around 75 degrees. Grown-in trees provided a windbreak. If you are ever up here you will notice that most trees grow in straight lines and right angles around farmhouses and other places used by humans. The Plains, left alone, are mostly an ocean of grass. The man who planted the cemetery trees put them in before water lines came out to the church, and he had to haul water to the site to keep them growing.

The groundskeeper told me that the church is served by retired Pastors, but services are held there only late Spring, Summer and early Fall. The land to the east is no longer farmed and is returning to nature, so the County no longer snowplows the road out to the church. A plow can be hired to clear a way for a burial, but that's it. School buses no longer travel the road since it doesn't lead to any place with kids anymore. The groundskeeper (also the treasurer for the church) said, "I'll probably be out here working on the grounds when I die, so they can just dig a hole and roll me in." He said it with a twinkle in his eye. His parents are buried there and he'll rest with them.

The burial service was for a man of 87, leaving behind a wife with whom he had shared close to 3/4 of his years on Earth. As I pass 50 in age and come up on 20 in marriage, these partings become more acutely emotional to be around. If we really love a spouse in the way God laid it out, "two becoming one," then "advanced age" or "circle of life" or any other clinical or platitudinous explanation doesn't do justice to this brutal amputation, one that the "survivor" doesn't always survive for very long.

The departed was a WWII vet, one of the many we are laying to rest every day. It is harder and harder to get full military honors at their gravesides, because the Vietnam vets tended to lay low from an ambivalent public and didn't replenish the ranks of the VFW and American Legion. So the very folks who are dying now are the members of the organizations that normally render honors.

Thankfully, the gent we buried on Saturday was blessed with full honors. A team showed up to advance the Colors, fold and present the U.S. Flag to his widow, fire a rifle salute and play taps (more and more played by a "chip" inserted in a bugle, with simulated blowing by a human).

It wasn't physically easy for some of these senior vets, clearly WWII generation themselves. They trailed heavy old Garand M1 rifles, the Infantry staple that shot down the Thousand Year Reich and the Rising Sun. With effort, they fired three volleys. The M1s made a percussive "Boom," very much a bass to the tenor "Snap" of the contemporary M16s used at most ceremonies today.

The military presence helped me draw more from the Bible reading at the grave, For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here were men who had lived in tents, in impermanent things that gave them some comfort for a little while.

For a little while, as things go, the Lutheran Church was the center of a web of life, as communities grew with the crops that God-fearing people wrestled from the land and the weather. Now, the church is out on the horizon, the road to it closes when it snows, and the cemetery is more abundant with memories and stories beyond our knowing.

For a little while, as things go, the farms bordering the cemetery gave sustenance. Now, the old rusty tools are at the auctioneer's, the school buses grind along other roads, and nature reclaims the land for its own abundance with an ease we can't imitate.

For a little while, as things go, a man grew up, farmed, fought a war, became one with a woman, raised generations (both horses and humans), danced and made people laugh. Now, his material remains rest in the ground, those who shared his life weather a season without his presence, and God welcomes a soul to something more abundant than words can tell.

That's some of what these Northern Plains said to me on Saturday.


Matt Perkins said...

Father Tim,
I really enjoyed reading this as I was on call in the hospital during an 18 hour shift. I've mentioned before that my dad was born and raised on the South Dakota plains - in Hurley near Sioux Falls. You have a gift for writing!

TLF+ said...

Blessings, Matt, and I hope both med school and Inland Anglicans are progressing in every way!