It had all the markings of a modern military burial: the flag draped coffin; the uniformed squad of pallbearers; the precise movements; the Westboro protesters incongruously shouting about homosexuality; the family in black; the widow weeping on a chair; the bikers glowering at the protesters; the preacher in subdued tones droning about everlasting life; the sudden stab of grief and the cry of anguish; the flags of the honor guard swaying, stirring, settling as a breeze rolled down from the mountains, eddied at the cemetery, collected itself, and passed on across the Great Plains.
The protesters shook their signs and yelled. The bikers folded their arms and flexed their tattoos. One of the Army men allowed a tear to course down his cheek. He quickly wiped it away with his gloved hand and, responding to the orders of the officer, handled his weapon. I thought the Army men might gun down the protesters, but they pointed their rifles at the mountains. Their shots, expected, yet startling in their intensity, echoed off the peaks, reverberated, and, just as we will: died.
I saw one or two of the protesters jump when the shots rang out, they briefly looked our way, as if to see whether their martyrdom had arrived. We all thought of our own death and imagined lying boxed at our loved ones’ feet.
None of us spoke, but our hands did our speaking for us. Sam’s hand rested on Kim’s shoulder. She touched it with hers and nuzzled her ear to it. Carol’s hand sought mine out. She grasped it as if she would never let it go. Natalie put her hand around the shoulder of her mother and they wept together. Frank’s hands hung uselessly at his side. The hands of the preacher closed his Bible and held it to his chest as one holds a pearl of great price. Some other person’s hands quickly found his ringing cell phone, playing a rap song, and tapped it to silence. A protester’s hands lifted his sign, “GOD HATES FAGS” it said. A middle finger emerged from a biker’s hands, his other rested on his bicep.
One Army man lifted a bugle to his lips while another switched on a machine that sounded out Taps. No one objected to the deception. There were far worse things to object to, but we didn’t object to them, either.
I looked around for who was not there. Many people unknown to me had come to pay their respects. My mother, long dead, was present in my thoughts, but my father lay in the nursing home. My sister was busy with her family and couldn’t get out to Colorado. She sent a donation to a Veteran’s Center and flowers for the grave. Daniel must’ve been with his lions, Abraham climbing a mountain, and Papa Legba, who should have been here ushering Paul’s spirit into the next world, was likely passed out drunk in New Awe Lands. And God? God had long ago wound this clock, set the alarm, and gone to sleep.
The squad of Army men, like mechanized puppets, lifted the flag off the casket and folded it into a crisp triangle, the same shape that I, as a boy, used to fold paper to create footballs that I snapped between the goal post fingers of my friends. The Army men themselves were like the soldiers I use to stand in an array across the living room. Not the green Army men in modern gear, but the Napoleonic soldiers in tall hats and stiff backs.
Our play has turned serious, I thought, as the triangled flag was placed on the widow’s reluctant lap. This is not play anymore; this is for keeps.
The casket was lowered creaking into the grave. We each, in turn, shoveled dirt on it. The box made a strangely hollow sound. Finally, there was nothing more left to do. The workmen waited at a discrete distance with their backhoe. The funeral men ushered us to our cars. The protesters made their point one more time, but it was lost to us. The Army men put away the guns, the flags, the bugle, and the Taps playing machine. The mountains sat there as they always have. The breeze gathered itself for a final pass, thought differently, and rested.
A burial has all the crowded images, contradictions, and disappointments of a life, only more so.