Please welcome today’s guest writer, Carolyn Muyskens. Carolyn is a fresh, bright-eyed graduate of the Calvin College English program with degrees in literature and linguistics. Someday she hopes to save the world through the power of local journalism, but for now she is living one day at a time, enjoying such varied hobbies as porch-sitting, cello-playing, and state politics.
We held a burial service for my grandfather’s ashes in early June. It was a full two months after his death and most of our family had already been to the memorial service, so the interment gathering was small, just my grandmother’s side of the family in the small farm town where she grew up.
Attending my grandpa’s burial service was just another obligation, a stop on my trip home from visiting cousins in Missouri, and on the drive up I thought and felt very little about seeing my grandfather’s ashes lowered into the ground.
It was the weather that changed things. By the time I arrived in Forreston, Illinois for the service, we found ourselves in a full-on gale. Identifying characteristics, according to the Beaufort wind scale: winds of thirty to forty miles per hour, entire trees set in motion, difficulty walking about.
Up on the hilltop in the church cemetery the noise of the gale enveloped us. Hot Midwestern summer air, already thick enough to knock you over any day, came in unceasing waves. This wind was constant rather than gusty, unrelenting in its strength, and, most of all, uncommonly loud.
My grandfather and I had been the quiet ones of the family, and in wake of his death, friends and family spoke of our characteristic reticence as though it was a striking similarity. “A quiet soul, like you,” a woman from church told me as she hugged me to her heavily perfumed bosom.
But the truth is, two people who don’t speak much have no special communion that others miss out on by opening their mouths. And silence is no indicator of disposition; my grandfather had devoted his life to his calling, first to church ministry and later on to meditative prayer. His silence was the outward expression of a calm, convicted spirit. The reasons for my silence on any given day could range from stubbornness, to a general kind of condescension towards humanity, to deep existential despair. Our shared silence stretched out between us like the Illinois farmlands.
The officiant tried to raise his aging voice over the wind’s battle with the protective tarp we’d set up but had to expend most of his energy trying to keep his pages from being ripped out by a gust of wind. Several times he lost his place and my aunt had to hold the hymnbook up while he—or rather, the wind, with a limited amount of guidance from his fingers—flipped through the pages.
Throughout the service, the wind seemed to heighten our attention rather than scatter it; there could be no looking away from God that day, just as there was nowhere to turn from the hot, pentecostal air that swept across the farmlands below the church, filling out every fold of the tent and billowing underneath our clothing.
I think it was the wind’s absurd loudness that felt intercessory to me. All the silences that needed filling—the minister’s frequent mid-sentence breaks to chase down the right page in the hymnbook, which indoors would have meant long awkward pauses; the quietude of my grandfather’s soft-spoken personality; questions I never asked him about God, the world he lived in, his life; words both of us failed to say while he was still alive—the wind seemed, in that moment, to fill them all.
My great aunt found the drama of the scenario, the intensity of the wind juxtaposed against my grandpa’s unassuming personality, to be somewhat ironic, and she told me so. “David used to just sit there, so quietly you wouldn’t even know he was there, and then he would just sort of look down and start laughing to himself. That’s what he would do if he were here, you know,” she said. “He would have been thinking, ‘All this fuss? For me?’”
This was another (related) similarity: my grandpa and I both required little from others and actively avoided any kind of attention. But I realized we were wrong—or, more precisely, the thoughts my aunt imagined for my grandfather were misguided. Of course all this fuss. Much more than fuss, much more than mere disruption or inconvenience—the end of any life, no matter how quiet and unassuming, calls for tumult, upheaval, cataclysm—at the very least, nothing less than strange hot winds buffeting the servicegoers at their burial.