The Last Shall Be First
There are no trees here. There should be trees to keep company with the dead. This was the first thing I thought as I stood beside a hole in the ground in tiny cemetery on the windswept winter prairies. It felt like the middle of nowhere. I guess it kind of was. Plots are more affordable the farther you go from the city, and the family had little money. It was bitterly cold and the few souls who had gathered shuffled nervously and stamped their feet. We were waiting for one more person who was late in arriving. I looked around and saw nothing but flat farmland and blowing snow. Where are the trees?
I read a psalm and committed a life to the care of Christ. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Rest in peace… Yes, rest in peace, for peace seemed too-often absent in the life we were honouring. Poverty, estrangement, various forms of mistreatment and neglect. A life that had known some love, certainly, but also much sadness and sorrow. A life that had ended suddenly and unexpectedly, yet at the same time altogether expectedly, A simple coffin that looked as thin as cardboard. Some half-hearted flowers. A ceremony where few people seemed to know what to say or how to say it, what to make of death, this unruly and unwelcome intruder.
There was a eulogy scratched out on what looked like pieces of cardboard packaging. There was a young man who kept loudly squeezing an empty plastic water bottle and kicking the chair in front of him. There was a lot of pet hair on musty rarely used jackets. There was a saccharine Ed Sheeran song played over tinny speakers. How I longed for something sturdier, for something amazing, like grace. When I stood at the podium in the spare and simple funeral chapel, there were more eyes directed to the floor than on me.
One of the deceased’s sons had asked me to read from Matthew 19. But many who are first will be last and the last shall be first…. for God all things are possible. I prayed that the few dozen people who had gathered—a motley crew, no doubt—would somehow believe these words. Such a deep truth about how God looks at his children, particularly those who struggle, those whose lives are hard, those who often feel a lot closer to “last” than “first” in this life. God does not value human lives the way that we often do, by who has the most money, the most power, the most influence. God sees each human life truly. God is on the side of those who might seem small, insignificant. Those the world takes little notice of. God rewards those who have not gotten many rewards in this life.
I drove slowly away from the graveyard-in-a-field, an hour from nowhere on the wind-blasted winter prairie. I glanced back at those who had gathered. Most were shuffling back to their vehicles. Some had left them running. An older man remained at the grave, sitting on one of the three snow-covered chairs that had been placed there by the funeral home. He was staring at the simple casket, a discoloured flower in his hand. He looked sad, but he also had what looked like a slight grin on the corners of his mouth. I think he knew something about the God for whom nothing is impossible.
I found Ed Sheeran on my phone, turned up the volume, and drove off into the wind and the treeless snow.
The image above was chosen for its resemblance to the one in the story. I believe Orkney Cemetery is in Saskatchewan, a few hours east of the cemetery I describe in the post.