Soaring to heights unknown: Natural to look back
As one gets older, it is natural to look back to those who were and always will be part of who we have become. I grew up in a family of eight children, and our sister Barbara was number 5 in the chain. Even though it was some years ago, I want to share the memory of Barb’s final day in the hope that it may inspire others as they face losing a loved one.
It was a cold, damp, uninviting sort of day. The wind blew seemingly in all directions; as if it were lost and did not know where to go. The few trees, stripped of their leaves, gave little shelter to the few birds who also seemed lost. It was as if they had missed the flocks heading south and now here they were, stuck in a cemetery. They reminded me of standing on a train station platform and seeing the last train of the day disappear in the distance. It was not a good day at a cemetery. And yet, in reality, any day is a good cemetery day. It is a visit that we all should make from time to time. It brings us closer to the reality of life and death. It reminds us that we have no choice in the matter. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. It is the place where we will again become one with the earth from which we came.
Slowly the family members approached the grave site. The service, followed by a light lunch in the church, had ended. And now all that remained was to entrust her physical remains to the earth. She had struggled for a year with a brain tumor and finally her struggle had ended. She had gone to be with God.
The celebration service was at Seventh Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was the church that Barb and her husband Jim had attended. We had gathered to celebrate her life, her love for her God and her generous spirit.
I had been asked to preside at the organ. It is difficult to play a memorial service for a family member. I had chosen music of comfort, of solace, some Bach, some Handel, and some of the Dutch Psalms that Barb loved. One of the grandchildren played the hymn, “What wondrous love is this, O my soul?”, on her flute. It was a moving tribute to a loved grandmother.
The opening hymn was “Abide with me, fast fall the evening tide.” Verse one speaks about darkness and about love. Verse two talks about the end of life, and verse three pleads for God’s presence in the clouds and sunshine of our life. It is in verse four that the song takes on a whole new dimension:
“I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless.
Ills have no weight and tears of bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where grave thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.”
With God’s help, I was able to improvise an interlude from sounds of contemplation to a hymn of triumph. I could feel the congregation walking with me as the music moved from its normal low key of E flat to the much higher key of G major. It became a song of faith triumphant. It was thrilling to hear the congregation sing, as with one voice. Together, in faith, we said “good bye” to Barb. It was overwhelming, I almost stopped playing!
Another improvised interlude followed. The music became contemplative, restful, and the congregation sang softly, from their heart to the heart of God. It was now in the much lower key of E flat. The verse ended with the words, “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me”. It is difficult when your vision is blurred, and your heart is overflowing.
Barb’s son, Mark, a Seminary student at the time, delivered a beautiful Remembrance on behalf of the family. Pastor Van Rijn, (Barb’s pastor) gave the message, using the words from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “But thanks be to God”. The service ended with the singing of the words of Simeon upon seeing Mary and Joseph entering the temple in Jerusalem, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for mine eyes have seen your salvation”. It was the same song I had played for my Dad’s funeral, years ago. The final blessing was followed by a joyful Toccata rendition of Psalm 146. “Praise Ye The Lord”. It was a glorious send off.
We moved outdoors, and slowly walked to the grave site as though we wanted to delay that final goodbye. It was still cold, the birds were gone, and the rustling leaves made Pastor Van Rijn’s words difficult to understand. When he ended his remarks he invited all of us to say “The Lord’s Prayer” together. The grandchildren, one by one, placed a rose on the casket. One little boy lingered for a moment, his hand on the casket, as though he wanted to make sure that grandma knew that he was there. Then it was over. We walked back to our cars, each filled with our own thoughts, and our own grief.
Barb is gone. What we left behind in the cemetery was merely the shell that had for so many years encased her spirit. At the moment of death her soul had soared to heights unknown, to that place we cannot comprehend. We take comfort in knowing that at the end of our journey we shall be reunited with her and with all of God’s children, to be forever with God.
For now, for us, life moves on. Our family of eight children is now down to seven. Who will be next?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also the organist for the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars.