As a child, I reluctantly attended the funeral of my great-grandfather. I knew him as "Pop" (creatively, we called his wife "Mom"). The experience is my earliest truly sad memory. It was also my first funeral. Back then in East Texas, I do not recall any memorial services. In fact, I never heard of such until many years later. This was an old-style open casket throughout the service event.
I vividly recall walking by the casket with my dad and grandfather, Pop's son. I loved all three of these men dearly in respective degrees from my dad down to Pop. My dad knew the funeral day would be hard on us. I suspect he spent a lot of time talking with my mother about whether my older brother and I should attend it.
After informing us that we should go with them to the service, my dad did his best to prepare me for this first-time experience. More than anything, I expect he knew looking at Pop's body would be tough on me and would also leave quite an impression. He was correct.
My dad emphasized to me several times before we left for the funeral home that it would not be Pop in the box. As I walked by the casket in a line and beside my dad and grandfather, I was just a few feet from Pop's body when I looked in. Other than the new suit of clothes and tie, which I had never seen Pop wear or even own, it sure looked like a pale and motionless Pop to me with closed eyes and a look on his face I had never seen or imagined.
The entire experience truly scared me. I had a hard time getting it out of my mind each day for a long time. It kept me awake at night for a while. I was frightened for Pop and afraid of what the future held one day for me. I kept thinking claustrophobically about being in a casket one day and tried hard to shake the image. I thought about Pop being underground in the casket, straining to reassure myself that Pop was in heaven and his body simply returned to dust. I believed it then and still do, but on this side of the bridge over to the other side of life in heaven, I was terrified.
Thinking back now, the hardest aspects of this memory are the sight and especially the sound of my grandfather. I loved him and saw him often. He was an integral part of my life. My "Granddaddy" was a real character. He was a mountain of a man full of gentleness and generosity. He was fun to be around, and I treasured my time with him and my grandmother. On that day at the funeral service, however, sorrow overwhelmed him. He did not hold back his tears.
When I get real still and think back on the experience, I can still hear him crying loudly. I had never seen him cry at all. It still breaks my heart to think about it and vividly remember. I also clearly recall the suffering look on my dad's face, mostly out of concern for his father. I expect he had never seen his dad in this extent of sadness and grief.
Whatever our religious affiliation, including mine as a Christian, life experiences significantly impact our faith journeys and perspectives. Scripture, worship, contemplative inquiry, teachings, prayer and other aspects of our religion are certainly formative. Hopefully, they are also progressively influential in deepening and sharpening our beliefs and, more importantly, encouraging us toward ethical ways of daily living. Raw life experiences, good and bad, also define and impact our religious viewpoints. Some of them stay with us for a lifetime.
My first funeral experience and its aftermath impressed on me the realities of mortality, sorrow, grief, and fear. Through my parents and others who cared for me, I watched and learned how important our response actions are to negative life experiences, including our own and those of others. They wrapped their arms around me and one another. They encouraged me to talk about my feelings and fears and to remember Pop's legacy as a compassionate and fine man, another important aspect of immortality. This helped me understand how God is always with us, including hurting when we hurt.
I experienced God in action and as a companion in the authentic, patient comfort and understanding from others. My parents assured me that I did not need to fully understand illness and death, but I did understand and experience love and help from others.
I believe Pop is in heaven and that I will see him again one day, but hopefully not too soon. In the interim, my attention should be rooted in my limited time on Earth in loving and thankful response to the opportunities of each day along the journey of life and faith.
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin.