Major Henderson was a man I never met and knew little about but he played a major role in my early life. He had been coming to the Senior Citizen’s program, housed at the church where I worked, for a month when he disappeared. They finally found out that he had been hospitalized and died shortly thereafter. There was to be a funeral but he had no minister or church. The seniors were insistent that he should have a minister. The seniors, though I did not know him, asked me to act as his minister. I accepted right away. Besides being pastoral I had an ulterior reason for accepting: I had never led a funeral before. I was anxious to have that first funeral notch on my ministerial belt. All through seminary I had practiced the sermon in my head many times but never had an opportunity to deliver it.
I knew I must place first things first. As they had taught me in seminary I needed to gather anecdotes about him and incorporate that in my sermon. So I began asking around the Senior Center. No one knew any details about him. He was the new man who sat at a certain table. He seemed shy and did not reveal much about himself in the short month he had been coming to the program. I thought of the irony that they insist he be remembered although they did not remember him. My only source of who he was would have to be his obituary. It was a standard paragraph but it did reveal he had served in the military during WWII. It also revealed he had once been married and had a son; both family members had preceded him in death. But that was it. That was the only information I had. Of course this did not matter because my sermon was going to turn heads and quench the thirsty souls of grief.
There was to be a viewing for him at the funeral home for a couple hours right, before the funeral service, which was to be held at the chapel at the cemetery. On arriving at the funeral home I met the director who gave me instructions of how the transferring of the body to the cemetery was to be done and other essential things to know. I went to the viewing at the funeral home. They had given him a small room off to the side. I was hoping to meet some of his friends and learn some things about him that I could use in the sermon. I was excited.
Before I went into the room. I looked at the guest book to see how many people had been to view the body. There were two names. I entered the room and no one was there. I thought to myself it will probably be a small crowd maybe ten or fifteen people. I was still energized about my sermon. The hour came and went and it was time to go to the cemetery.
It was a thirty minute drive to the cemetery. There was no long line of cars driving there. It was only me trying to keep up with the hearse that was driving fast because there was no procession following. We arrived at the cemetery; it was large. Finally after driving a quarter mile I saw over the hill a gothic chapel. It was huge and seemed out of portion to its surroundings. I noticed there were no cars except the cemetery caretakers and the hearse. I entered the high vaulted ceiling chapel to symbolize humanity’s reach upward to God. The chapel could seat around two hundred people. There was one huge woman sitting on the front row. That was it. Yet I looked at the watch and we still had fifteen minutes before the service was to begin. I attempted to look pastoral as I walked up to the front. I nodded and smiled at the woman. I sat on the pew next to her as I reviewed my sermon. It was good, although I knew now that I would be lucky to have five people. But still there would be some pleasure of saying to my peers yes I have done my share of funerals.
The funeral director walked up to me and said it was time to start. I agreed. Then the funeral director looked at me and said with a smirk in his voice, ’You know she is deaf.’ He then turned and walked out of the chapel. My first funeral and the only people to hear it were a corpse and a deaf woman. Now if I had not been Baptist I could have performed some ritual and left it at that. But Baptists or not much for ritual and feel a need for the spoken word. So I decided the show must go on. Deciding an introduction would not be needed I went straight to preaching my sermon. Not knowing how deaf she might be I put on the loudest preaching voice I could muster. Now one has to realize that in a large empty chapel like I was in your voice had an echo. I had to concentrate to keep on-track as my words were repeating back to me. I knew it was a comedy of errors but my sermon was going to be preached; after all it was good. About a quarter of the way through it she finally caught my eye pointed a finger at her ear and mouthed “I can’t hear you.” The empty cathedral with the echo and the deaf woman and the corpse had now won. I looked at her; she had tears rolling down her eyes. How lonely she must have felt. This man who had meant something to her was gone. And maybe she would die and no one at all would be at her funeral.
My humanity laughed at me. I stopped my sermon mid-sentence and said amen. I left the front of the chapel and sat down beside her, reached out and held her hand. She looked at me. I looked at her and I mouthed I was sorry for her loss and would keep her in my prayers. I reached in my pocket pulled out my business card and handed it to her. She cried for a few more minutes, smiled at me, said goodbye and left. I sat for a few minutes in the chapel with Major Henderson. I told him thank-you for being my first funeral.
The funeral director, cemetery caretaker and assistants came in. I looked at the director; he nodded at me and asked if I would be available for other funerals. I said yes and walked out. The day was overcast. I got in my car and started the drive out of the cemetery, thinking my colleagues would love this story. I would never hear the end of it. But my mind trailed to Major Henderson as I looked at the row after row of tombstones. Who were all these people once so full of life and yet now relegated to a tombstone. Did people remember them? Did they leave family? A deep loneliness filled me. I looked at the final row of monuments as I pulled out of the cemetery and remembered the belief that your existence continues in this world as long as someone remembers. I made a promise to Major: I will not forget him.