The mystery that gives Catholic services their captivating effect is ruined, at least a measure, by conducting them in English. I watched, an outsider at the rear of the little church, resting my shoulders on the cool adobe wall. Walls witness to greater than one hundred years of such goings on. My heart rose to the twangs of Spanish guitar, and I rose with others, but never knelt. The priest did his stumbling best, and got us through it.
Bearing his coffin out, at the doors of the church they stopped. A deacon and a pall bearer removed the Catholic raiment from the coffin. Beneath the barely patterned white shroud, stripes of blood red and snow white, cornered with the star bearing field of blue. All holiness supposed of the ceremony just passed, stood miniscule in the face of the flag. Tears welled at the corners of my eyes.
As we followed the procession out the doors of the church, the flag gleamed all the more brightly in the desert sun. I looked across the graveyard of bare earth, at the miles of rocky, dry, hills. Standing in the corner of the graveyard, silver piping glimmering on his dress blues, was an Air Force bugler. Alien to the surrounding dust but mute and still as the native stones. The honor guard stood crisply at grave side. One of them a very pretty young woman, I could see a bead of sweat break on her forehead and roll to her eye with nary a blink.
A strong hand gripped my shoulder, almost painfully, as an old friend came to stand at my side. We watched quietly as the priest finished his graveside services. As before, he stumbled through it. His corpulence shaking beneath his robes as the heat tolled on him, he managed to carry it out. Looking around those gathered, most appeared to be holding their own court and ignoring the man. When he finished, an old man stepped forward. A man I've known all my life, tall and thin, his frame often bent by extreme age, he stood tall and stepped with his chest out. His shoulders back he lead the gathered mourners in prayer for a fallen veteran. His voice carried strong through the churchyard and echoed back from the rocky hillside and adobe walls. His eyes shone with tears, and his voice, thick with pride, broke only once. Finishing, his frame stiffened further, his starkly blue eyes straight ahead. Behind us in the stillness of the empty hot desert, a tongue wet dry lips. The slow strain of Taps filled the air, perfectly played. I stood stiff as hot tears welled to the music, and beside my old friend's eyes glistened. By the time the bugler had finished, and the honor guard had begun folding the flag, tears had flowed freely down both our cheeks.
As the honor guard marched smartly to the edge of the churchyard, the pallbearers lined up and began to slow move to take up the coffin, and then lower it into the earth. The gray box slid slowly down on the ropes, past the rough edges of the hand-dug grave. As the pallbearers pulled up their ropes and moved away, the mourners began to line up. Each taking a handful of earth from the shovel held by the funeral director, we cast it into the gave. Each handful raising a hollow echo to greet the next as it fell. And then everyone moved back, and the shovels came out. A handful of us handed our hats off to the side, and grabbed the shovels. Sweat pouring, each of us threw our backs into it and shovelful by shovelful gave our friend his rest. A lifetime cannot be buried, but a coffin can be covered and a grave mounded in a remarkable hurry. I stood back at the end, when the dirt was so little as to only require a final shovel to move and neaten and handed my shovel to its original owner. Hot and breathing hard, someone stuck a dripping, cold, Budweiser into my hands. Achingly cold from the cooler full of ice, I rolled it between my palms and across the sides of my neck before opening it. The first sip was cold, wet and perfect. The best beer is sometimes the cheapest, when its that cold and hard earned.
After that we just stood in the churchyard – The living among the dead - Shaking hands, clasping shoulders, and drinking beer.
My faith, my religion, is these things - Hard hands, dusty soil, hand dug graves, flag draped coffins, a bugle slowly aching Taps and the community of others who understand the same. If there is holiness, if anything is sacred, it is there.