We Are Stardust, We Are Golden

December 29, 2001
Saturday

We are stardust, we are golden,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
                 — Joni Mitchell, b. 1943, Canadian singer-songwriter

The day began with sharp cold and snow squalls that left a light dusting on the grass. Brandi’s memorial service was to start at 11:00. The sanctuary of our church seats about 250 comfortably, 300 if people sit really close together. I’m not good at estimating crowd sizes. All I know is that the pews were packed, the ushers kept placing folding chairs in every nook and cranny, and every available space for standing was occupied.

The family chose cremation, and also chose not to have the urn with the remains present in the sanctuary. Instead there was a large photo of Brandi to the left of the altar, as well as two display boards full of snapshots in the narthex.

This is the third year in a row that I have attended a funeral in the last week of December and then reflected upon it in this space. Two years ago it was a woman in her mid-thirties who died from the effects of a chronic illness. Last year it was a man nearly ninety who had lived a full and productive life. This year it was a young woman full of youthful joy who seemed to have her whole life ahead of her.

She was a member of my church congregation, so many of the people I sat among are the people I worship with every week. The pastor’s message was a familiar one — that it is natural to ask of God why Brandi, why now, and to be disappointed that there are no satisfying answers. The question we do not need to ask is what — what has become of the vibrant youngster who so lately moved among us. Our faith teaches us that in baptism she became forever a child of God, journeying through this life on her way to reunion with his essential nature. What has happened to Brandi has happened in God’s time. We are to be forgiven for wanting to hold her in our time, for grieving that we can no longer enjoy her company.

The committal service took place in Ringtown, Pennsylvania, a coal region settlement about an hour and a half north of here where both sides of Brandi’s family have their roots. It is, in fact, not far from Mahanoy City, the site of many of the resting places of my own family members. The church is a white clapboard structure in the 19th century style, its windows hung with holiday swags. Just enough snow to be decorative crowned the window frames and the headstones in the adjoining churchyard.

We gathered around the small space cut out of the earth which would receive the brass urn that now rested on a pedestal beside the opening. This was only the second funeral I had ever attended at which no body had been viewed, nor even a closed full-size casket present as the object for meditation. Only this very small box which I had trouble relating to the image I still held in my mind of Brandi.

Cremation is not part of the culture I grew up in. It dates back to prehistoric times and was popular among the ancient Greeks and Romans. But during Constantine’s program to spread Christianity throughout the empire, earth burial, which preserved the body for the Second Coming, became the standard, and remained so until the 19th century. Concerns about sanitation and the development of reliable scientific equipment to carry out the process led to a revival in interest, although even today cremation is chosen by only a quarter of American families.

The Catholic church of my childhood prohibited cremation, although that stance has changed, and thus I grew up knowing nothing about this mysterious process. Although I had attended many memorial services that took place after the remains had been disposed of or interred, it was not until two years ago that I actually attended a funeral in which the urn was placed on the pedestal along with the deceased’s portrait. And even though I am a student of burial rites and mourning customs and have read the latest academic histories of cremation, the process remained slightly abhorrent to me.

But my role today was not to judge nor to question why people do what they do, but to support my friends who had had to make so many difficult personal decisions. Brandi’s 16-year-old sister, my daughter’s best friend, seemed to have the most difficulty leaving the graveside after the final blessing, and I began to weep as I watched her 14-year-old brother, suddenly so grown up and looking nothing like the clowny kid I know him to be, comfort her with a hand on her shoulder and a gentle nudge to help her turn away.

I left Ringtown as soon as I could (Lynn was riding back with Kim) because I had yet another family event to attend. I was back in Harrisburg in time for the 5:00 Mass at St. Margaret Mary Parish, the church of my early childhood. My cousin and his wife, who have been married for more than ten years and who have a five-year-old, were having a rededication of their marriage vows. In addition, Lisa was to receive the sacrament of Confirmation, a ritual she had refused as a teenager.

Jim and I had gone all through Catholic school together, members of the same class and the same social circles. Both of us “fell away” (the Church’s term for it) from Catholic practice in our college years. We fell away from each other about that time too. We went to different schools, and then he and his first wife were living in New York, I was still here, and we simply seemed to have little in common.

When his daughter was born, however, he began to make overtures both to me and to the church. I don’t know exactly what path his spirituality has taken, but I knew that he had specifically invited me to be at this ceremony, that it seemed very important to him, and so it was important to me.

His brother, too, attended this event, along with two of his sons and one of his grandchildren. Eddy is ten years older than we are. His wife of thirty-nine years died suddenly in October. This was the first I’d seen him, since the funeral was accomplished before anyone managed to tell my sister or me about it. I assured him that one or both of us would have been there had we known, and Jim apologized again for not having thought of us.

Jim and Lisa took us all out to dinner. He and I talked for a while about where I’d been earlier today, and about his sister-in-law’s funeral, which he said he found particularly moving. The theme was joy amid sorrow — joy that Carol Ann had attained that union with God that is promised us along with our own sorrow that we have lost the physical presence of someone we loved so much. “Their faith is so strong,” Jim said. “I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.”

Perpetual LightI was exhausted when I left the restaurant. I’d been extroverting for more than fourteen hours, interacting with people who were going through intensely emotional events. When I got to my car I looked up, and there was the nearly full moon riding above bare branches, seemingly motionless in time but moving all the while. The brilliant white light fell on my face, and suddenly I knew what has become of Brandi, both in her essential soul and her bodily vessel. 

She is pure energy now, she is stardust, she is golden, she has gone back to the garden.