Wednesday, July 15, 2009

the funeral

I got invited to the funeral this week, so I decided to go. Most of the villagers, plus several dozen friends and family members from neighboring villages, trickled into the Community Hall during the heat of the day to say goodbye to Flora, an elder who'd passed away from a lingering illness.

It wasn't the first Alaskan village funeral I've attended. Years ago, when we lived in Anchorage, our family had the privilege of attending the funeral of the chief of Tyonek, who died at a very young age of cancer. Tyonek is a Russian Orthodox village, so the funeral was officiated by the local priest. I remember that the service seemed interminable, we stood the whole time (and got some dirty looks from the priest) and ate a lot of interesting food (including muktuk--pickled whale blubber) at the potlatch afterwards. It was an amazing experience.

The funeral I attended Tuesday was catholic, since this village was the first catholic outpost, started in the 1800's. I haven't been to Mass in a long time (I grew up Catholic), but was amazed at how easily the liturgy came back to me. I was a little surprised by the smattering of good baptist songs mixed in with the responsive readings. We held hands and said the Lord's prayer together and then sang all the verses of Amazing Grace. Brother Rob, who is actually a Franciscan friar and not a priest at all, said nice things about Flora and heaven during the eulogy.

My favorite part was hearing my friend, Paula, (an elder in the village) say the Lord's Prayer in Athabaskan. Last year, I asked her to teach me how to say goodbye in her language. Paula told me the Athabaskan Indians didn't have a word for "goodbye". It was too rude and final. Instead they say something that means "I will bother you later."

My Native friend Carmen coaxed me into going up and taking communion with her. Protestant that I now am, I tried to grab the wafer with my fingers. The celebrant glared at me and I suddenly remembered that only certain people are supposed to touch the Eucharist. So I opened my mouth and she begrudging placed the tasteless wafer on my tongue. I followed Carmen back to our seats, avoiding stares and raised eyebrows, my heart rejoicing that I'd experienced communion with my Native friends.

On a side note, I've been reading through the book of Hebrews since we arrived in this village. I've been so struck by the emphasis on Jesus being our High Priest--He is the One we go through to reach the Father. His blood--not our dead works--covers our sin. We can enter into the Father's rest because of His son's sacrifice.

How amazing is His grace to us! Pray that my friends here can grasp that truth.