Last week my aunt, Judy Harrison, 82, passed away. She had been in poor health for a while, and when my father called with the news I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me was when he told me she had requested all her nephews serve as pall bearers at her funeral. I agreed, of course, and two days later Pam and I made the trip to Gainesville, Georgia for the memorial service and burial.
When the hearse arrived at the cemetery at Concord Baptist Church, my cousins and I pulled out the coffin and walked it to the grave. I’ve officiated at more funerals than I can count, but this was the first time I remember serving as a pall bearer. Family funerals are always a challenge for ministers because it’s hard for us to step out of our official role and act like normal people. I’ve preached in the past at a couple of funerals for family members and felt so uncomfortable that a few years ago I decided not to do it anymore. Instead, I’ve chosen on these occasions to participate as one of the family. Serving as a pall bearer at Judy’s funeral was exactly what I needed to do—for myself as well as for my family.
Judy was buried next to her husband J.N. who died three years earlier. I saw nearby the graves of my grandparents, her mother and father, Reness and Vancy Turner. Other familiar names dotted the surrounding headstones, people I either had known or whose names figured in the many stories my father told me in my childhood about the town and the people who lived there. The church rests in the shadow of Wauka Mountain, the southernmost peak of the Appalachian Mountains, and the small communities and family farms that spill over and into the surrounding hills and valleys have been home to my family for generations.
I return to this place often because of the simple love of place that southerners of all people know so well. But my trip this time had the added benefit of meeting up with my cousins—that’s our group picture at the top, taken on the front steps of the church following the service.
Aunt Judy was the second-oldest of five siblings and had two daughters. Her older sister has four sons. My father is next in line, and he has three sons. His younger brother Ben has two sons and a daughter. The youngest brother, Vandy, has Down’s Syndrome and never married. Altogether there are twelve first cousins (my youngest brother was sick the day of the funeral and isn’t in the picture).
We’re all middle-aged now and to a person have done well. Wes just retired after a long career as a dentist. Pat is a tenured professor at the University of Alabama. Gary has done very well at Georgia Power Company. Jeff just took early retirement after years working as a negotiator for the health care industry. Rick is a vice-president for a national trucking firm. In fact, looking at the group of people in the picture, all of us would say we’ve had fortunate lives.
We don’t see each other very often but when we do it doesn’t take long to re-connect. Our conversation doesn’t revolve much around our professional lives—that’s the furthest thing from our minds. We talk instead about shared memories from our childhoods. Like holiday get-togethers when we’d stand in a circle and throw lit firecrackers at each other’s feet to see who would flinch first. Or touch football games played in the street where we had to dodge passing cars. Or Christmas dinners together. The experiences we had decades ago that didn’t so much form the relationships we enjoy today as they confirmed the deeper family connection we already had.
We talk also about our own families. What our kids are doing. Who they married. How many children they have. Where they live. The connection between us is always a wonder to me and continues to remind me of the enduring strength of the family. The generations behind us make us what we are and set the stage for the generations to come. Past flows into present, and the family we were effortlessly becomes the family we are.
The Bible doesn’t teach that the family is eternal. In the life to come, Jesus says, all the relationships we enjoy on earth will give way to a greater fulfillment. But family this side of heaven is a blessing that transcends generations.