On the Wings of a Dove

Where do you want to be buried?

Please, bury me in a wild place. Scatter my ashes so that a wandering human or animal won’t notice any differences in the place where my remains have mixed with the earth.

I recall thinking those wild musings while searching for graves at a local cemetery. This cemetery saunter was a few years ago, when I was serving as a church’s pastor.

Why was I exploring a “stone garden?” Back in the 1930s, a certain Jane Q. Smith (not her real name) had given three cemetery plots to her church. Since the transfer of ownership occurred in the Great Depression, was it a valiant effort by the dearly departed Ms. Smith to boost church finances? Or was she dumping all of her rotten husband’s assets during a humiliating divorce? Who knew?

Whatever the Smith’s story might be, sometime in the 1970s, her grave documents were transferred from her old church—which had closed—when it merged with a newly formed congregation. More decades went by. Procrastination ruled the day. I eventually became the pastor of that once new church.

No one, over several generations, had done anything with Ms. Smith’s “real estate” donation.

One of the church’s trustees found the Smith documents, literally buried in old files. The never-in-a-rush trustees decided to accomplish what Ms. Smith probably intended during the Depression: have the plots sold to help the church budget.

I wanted to actually see the plots, and so visited the cemetery’s manicured lawns and carved granite markers. While there, I thought about wild places where I’d hiked, through windswept meadows and by glacier-scoured granite. I also wondered about Ms. Jane Q. Smith’s motives, and—since cemeteries rarely inspire happy thoughts—I considered my own mortality.

Where did I want to be buried?

(Bonus question repeated – Where do you want to be buried?)

While pondering my inevitable demise, I heard and then spotted some caged birds. There were two containers of pigeon-like birds in the bed of a battered Chevy truck. A nearby fellow, sweating in the heat, and incongruously wearing a tie under the blazing summer sun, cleared his throat as I studied the birds.

“Your birds?” I asked.

“Yep.”

“What are they for?’

“In a little while, there’s a graveside service and I’m gonna release the doves.”

“I thought they were pigeons.”

He grunted. “Not much difference. Pigeons and doves. Same bird family, right? But doves sound nicer, right?”

Right.

I figured he was the expert. We chatted and I learned about A Flight of Hope* (my little “business on the side,” he explained). For a fee, he’ll bring birds to a graveside service. Near the ceremony’s conclusion, he’d hand a single bird to a family member, showing the person how to grasp it so it wouldn’t fly away. With memorized words, he speaks about a person’s spirit returning home to heaven like on the wings of a dove. When he’s finished, the family member releases the dove.

Though the dove flies away, it remains in the area, trained to circle directly above. In a few seconds, he’ll release a flock of doves with a remote sensor and, from a strategically hidden cage, those birds rise into the air. They will regroup above the grave, be joined by the first lone bird, and head home . . . not to heaven, but to his residence.

My necktie-wearing companion said that the birds take about five months to train. He mentioned, while handing me a business card, that he also did weddings. He quickly added that he used different passages to read for those ceremonies. I was glad to hear that.

Later, after a tad of research, I discovered that most pigeons and doves (of the Columbidae bird family) head for their nest . . .  like most birds. But some, especially with training, can fly amazing distances for the return home.

I could have debated his theology about “home-going” at death. Within my Christian tradition, resurrection doesn’t tout the separation between a person’s spirit and body. The spirit “flying free” is more Greek philosophy or pop psychology. And where is “heaven” located? Up? Or a mysterious beyond? Or . . .? But does it matter? I would never quibble over the various ancient, obscure, and enduring symbols we sometimes use to try to explain inexplicable death. For some, those birds flying away do truly help the day’s sorrows. They will be beautiful. Beating wings, one bird joining many, white blurs against a flat blue sky.

At a graveside service, maybe a bit of the grief will be lifted. At a wedding, maybe the joy will spread more quickly. He will have rightly earned his fees.

And yet, his business won’t get my money. My wife, and just a few others, know where I wish to have my remains scattered. Leaving my ashes at the particular place I desire is illegal. But it’s not likely anybody will be jailed; spreading out or burying the ashes shouldn’t take long and what’s left of me will quickly blend into the surroundings.

Most of our lives, we file away death’s reality like Ms. Jane Q. Smith’s donation to her church. We avoid dealing with it. Ah, sweet procrastination! Forget making a will. Never mind telling others your wishes. Anyhow, we can’t truly prepare for death. A loved one dies and we are crushed. We read the promises of faith and believe them (or don’t), but they never stop the tears.

And so, we use comforting symbols and trained birds . . . how can we not?

However, bury me in a wild place, where no one manicures the grass and the birds of the air (as Matthew 6:26 reminded) come and go as they please.

And what about your wishes? Afraid to talk about them? Keeping them a secret? Like the doves, why not release them, allowing those who love you know your wishes.

 

*I made up the name to protect the guilty, the innocent, and a few birds.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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