A hot morning in the trunk

Gertrude Borkowski had lived her entire life in this small Midwestern town. I don’t recall her maiden name, but at some point she married Mr. Borkowski who died before she came into my life. Fact is, I never really met Gertrude as she had moved in her twilight years to another state where I was told her relatives were caring for her. She remained prominent in her hometown long after she moved away primarily because her immense house was kept in immaculate condition under her ownership even though it remained empty all of those years. Her name remained on the church rolls.

One day I got a call from one of her younger out-of-state relatives to whom Gertrude had submitted her care. He told me that Gertrude had died and he wanted to arrange for a memorial service for her. I confirmed that he wanted a memorial service (not a funeral) as my tradition had taught me that the remains are not present for a memorial service.

He confirmed. “Yes, we want a memorial service. Gertrude is being cremated and we’re going to go ahead and ship the ashes to the cemetery there (in her hometown) with instructions that they should go ahead and bury them. That will all be done before the 100_0433memorial service.”

Having cleared that up, we went ahead and planned the service. The young man arranged to have the obituary and memorial service time and place published in the local paper, and the church ladies planned a luncheon to be held in the church basement.

The day of the service arrived. I met and invited into my office Gertrude’s young relative and his wife and helped them to be comfortable. We went through the details of the pending service and then I left them so I could check on details in the sanctuary.

Now, when I stepped into the worship space, much of it was filled. And as I proceeded down the aisle to make certain details had been addressed at the pulpit, a woman stepped out in front of me (I knew from the obituary reports that she was also a relative of Gertrude) and, foregoing a greeting of any sort, said in her street voice, “We brought Gertrude in.”

Interesting, I thought. “What do you mean?” I asked with as pleasant a smile as I could muster.

“Nobody else arranged for her, so we brought her in.”

Still unclear and being pretty certain Gertrude was dead and gone, I said, “I’m not sure…,” my subdued voice drifting off. I paused slightly. Then looking toward the front of the church I saw a box sitting on the floor of the chancel. I gestured toward it. “What’s that?” I asked again as pleasantly as possible.

“That’s Gertrude,” came the reply.

My pleasant look must have turned to one of complete confusion so the woman continued.

“Her ashes were shipped to the cemetery. But the man who handles the burials said he didn’t want to bury them because he knew her funeral was coming up and he knew we were relatives so he called us and we picked her up and brought her here.” She wasn’t even breathless.

OK. So the cremated remains were not buried as they were supposed to be, and, clearly, the relatives had not communicated with one another.

“Well,” I said finding my pleasant smile again, “Your cousin is in my office and he, when he called me to arrange for the service, was specific that Gertrude’s ashes were not to be present and that they were to be buried by now….” Again, my voice dwindled off.

“Well!” the woman said in a huff. “He thinks he’s in charge of everything and that he knows everything but he’s not in charge. And we have Gertrude here and ready to go!”

Gertrude was, indeed, dressed for the day in a very fine urn.

I could see this was going to turn into something unpleasant right in the middle of the sanctuary so I just quietly said, “He’s in my office. I can go talk with him again. Would you like to come with me?”

I was met with a huffy and defiant “No!” so I departed.

You can imagine the reception I got in my office as I related to the young man the events of the previous few minutes. He reiterated that he had instructed the cemetery sexton to bury the remains and that they were not to be present for the service. “Get rid of them,” he said pleasantly but determined.

So I exited my office and made a quiet entrance into the sanctuary which, by that time, was full. I apprehensively approached the young man’s cousin as she sat at the end of the pew. “I’m sorry, but he said he wants the remains removed.”

Then she stood up abruptly and made her way to the front of the church. I didn’t stick around to see what happened next. It was time to start the service. I made my way out the back and retrieved the family members who had made the arrangements and simply told them everything would be all right. We had a prayer together and then headed to the sanctuary to initiate the processional.

I could see the urn was gone. Before we began, I once again approached the angry relative at the end of the pew. She didn’t wait for me to say a word. She just said, “At the end of the service, tell people there will be a burial and everyone is invited to come.” “Where is the urn?” I asked quietly.

“Gertrude is in the trunk of the car,” she said flatly.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As we proceeded with the processional, I silently said a prayer that God would make this service a celebration of Gertrude’s life and that family differences might be put aside. And then I said that same prayer again – but this time I said it out loud. The service proceeded. The young man who had assisted in Gertrude’s final care gave a eulogy. As I sat there listening, I ran my eyes over the congregation and could see a variety of facial expressions ranging from pure grief to downright anger. There were those concentrating on the celebration of Gertrude’s life and there were those who I could only imagine were plotting some kind of vengeance. Music played, more prayers offered, and I provided a short sermon. Then I invited those who wished to attend to the burial of Gertrude’s ashes to do so and then return to the church for lunch. Those who wished to just stay for the meal were welcomed to do that as well.

Everyone left. I don’t know where they all went. I know the young man and his wife just waited for some folks to return for lunch. The church basement ladies did their usual excellent job and put on a delicious meal. The angry local relatives never came back.

And the words that hung in the air around me were, “Gertrude is in the trunk.”

On a hot summer day, the image that conjures up is not a pleasant one, but, of course, it was only an urn with ashes. And it wasn’t Gertrude at all. Gertrude had left this earth a couple of weeks before.

I never got into the intricacies of the differences of opinion in Gertrude’s family. The out-of-staters left town right away and the in-towners didn’t seem to blame me for decisions that were made relative to Gertrude’s remains. The whole thing was spoken about in hushed tones for a few days and then the subject evaporated.

In one of my mother’s final pronouncements in this life, she declared, “Relatives! Hmmpf!”

There seems to be a lot of that sentiment going around. With the state of the world these days, you’d think we could find more important situations for which to seek solutions together. Maybe we don’t because it’s just easier to think about Gertrude in the trunk.

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