I am standing beside a tiny creek that runs parallel to Hwy. 103, about a mile outside of Mount Airy. I'm in that area where the ground becomes less firm, and I can feel my black Sunday dress shoes giving in to the soft earth. I am there with a dozen or so folks, including the family who invited me to be here with them after their loved one died in late spring; invited me to join them behind the small structure on the side of the road that used to house the family store. We've come to this place to spread the ashes of their beloved wife and mother in the creek behind the old store; a space that has deep meaning for them. Sacred spaces can be hallowed sanctuaries of brick and mortar and stained glass, but they can also be a small creek off a remote highway. And that is where we are now.
I am standing there with the full realization that I've never done anything like this before. Funerals and memorial services, graveside committals, even the burying of ashes - I've done plenty of those in my nearly 17 years of ministry. But spreading ashes in a creek? This is something new.
They are looking at me to tell me they're ready to begin. I've planned out a few things to say - but I've also left a lot of space, because I've done this sort of thing long enough to know when I need to script it out and when I need to step aside and get out of the way. And so I begin by acknowledging the beautiful day, by reading a few scriptures about rivers and water, and by telling them how rivers are a metaphor for life: they flow constantly, and they only flow one way. There's no reversing the course of the river, and there's no way to stop the water from running the way it goes. Life, it turns out, acts much the same way. And so as we commit these ashes to the waters, knowing they will be taken somewhere, I tell them that we commit our loved one to the journey that we are not yet able to go on ourselves. But one day it'll be our time to take a trip down the river, where we will meet our God and the loved one who went on before us.
I've said all I need to say. I motion to the widower and his middle-aged daughters, and together the three remove their shoes and step out into the creek, where the water's flow is strongest. Those standing on the bank are tossing small flowers in, and it is a beautiful scene.
And that is when Mumford & Sons' "Awake My Soul" starts playing.
I'd almost forgotten that they told me they were going to do this - a song they said she loved. With us unaware, the son-in-law had pulled the car up behind the small gathering and opened its windows, and now the space is filled with that familiar, flowing octave-D intro. Small flowers continue to fill the air and water as the words come....
How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now I am certain of things I don't know
My weakness I feel I must finally show.
It is never easy to let go of our loved ones when it is their time. We are created to live; and while dying is a part of life, it's that part further down the river that we can't see. So we are afraid of it, for ourselves and for others. And yet, in order to let go, we have to go into our weakness - just as these three were doing, stepping into the chilly water and onto the rocky uneven creek bed, holding each other's hands for both physical and emotional stability....
Lend me your hand and I'll conquer them all
But lend me your heart and I'll just let you fall
Lend me your eyes, I can change what you see
But your soul you must keep totally free
They open the plastic bag and tip the end down so the ashes begin their descent into the flowing waters. The journey has begun. And as the water turns a smoky white, the descant fills the air around us like a musical benediction:
Awake, my soul
Awake, my soul
Yes, we are on holy ground, the likes of which I've never been on before.
In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
Where you invest your love, you invest your life.
Memories of this person flow through my mind as her ashes now flow through the waters. Her love for music and the people who shared that love. Her passion for basketball - which reminds me of the last conversation I had with her at the Hospice home days before her death, when she snapped out of her cancer-driven fog long enough to describe in great detail the ball she was passing to me on some distant court. Her amazing ability to get along with everyone and smile perpetually, even as her body failed her. This woman had invested her love in so many places with so many people, and because of that her life would live on long after her remains made their way through the water into the woods.
The bag is now empty, and all the ashes have been sent on their way. And so the three step out of the water and back on to the marshy land. Tears fill their eyes, as they are filling the eyes of the rest of us. A flowing water of a different kind. The song is now picking up its tempo; the soft-flowing melody making way for the pulsing celebration as the creek begins to return to its normal color...
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
Awake my soul
You were made to meet your maker