04 March 2011

Saddest Funeral - with a Surreal Moment

So, when I arrive for Noel's grave-side service, I meet Marty, the funeral director, who turns out to be a fellow Lutheran.  He's a most kind man.  Noel didn't have any decent clothes (Noel always wore a flannel shirt and sweat pants) to be buried in, so Marty had purchased some for him.  So he showed me the body and then we sat and waited.  No one showed.

About five minutes before the service is to begin, a car pulled up and a man and woman got out.  They were looking for the Noel Fritz funeral. She was a second cousin, she informs us.  The funeral director kindly asked if they'd like to view the body before we began.  They said they would and then the woman blurts out:  "But that's a man!"  Her cousin was a woman, it turns out.  Ah, "Noel" can be tricky.  I should have known because she pronounced it like the word for Christmas and not like "No-wel."  So even they weren't there for poor Noel. They were embarrassed and drove off, and I told the funeral director that Noel would have absolutely gotten a kick out of that!

Come 1:00 the funeral director and I began the burial liturgy and we prayed through it.  It was a comfort to have a fellow Lutheran Christian beside me making the responses without being prompted.  But I was so sad to think of how Noel's life ended and not a single person came to his burial who knew him except his pastor.  I've never, never experienced anything like that.  I know we had some members who knew him, and who would have been there, but one had recently had surgery and the other had out of town guests that where coming in the same time.

The funeral director told me that the nursing home staff said the only people to ever visit the poor man were the pastors from St. Paul's on the monthly communion calls and the members of the church who stopped in now and again.  I first got to meet Noel many years back.  Fred introduced me.  I was taking communion to Fred at a shelter care home not far from where Noel ended up being buried, when Fred said:  "Pastor, I have a friend here who used to be a Lutheran, and he's not been to church for years and he wants communion.  Can you talk to him?"  So I made my acquaintance with Noel and he became a member of our church, and since his family had owned the drug store Fritz' in Staunton, we had members who even knew him. For a number of years, he and Fred took communion together.  But then Fred moved to a different place, and Noel did as well.  And then both moved to still different places.  I thought as I drove away what an idiot I had been not to swing by and pick up Fred and bring him.  He probably doesn't even know, and I just didn't think about it - it all happened so fast, the funeral already set up and scheduled before they even found out he had a pastor!

Although Noel was never terribly chatty for me, Deaconess Sandy tells me that he talked to her for a good long time.  He did tell one of the members of our Christian Life Committee once:  "Oh, you're from St. Paul's.  I like that little boy pastor who comes by and brings me communion."  That little boy pastor.  He became my favorite parishioner then and there!  :)   I tried to bring him communion this last week, but I got there right as he had gone to the smoking room for his regular puff - he was a totally addicted smoker.  He said:  "I'm going to be be a while, Pastor."  That was his way of saying:  "Don't bother me; this is important."  So I bid him farewell and told him I'd catch him again later.  Well, the later on will have to be at the great Marriage Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom, where Noel will be healed and whole, and the mental troubles that plagued his life will be forever gone.

Rest in peace, my friend.  At last, rest in peace.


Pr Mark Henderson said...

Yes, sad and surreal.
If you wrote that scene where the second cousin turns up in a novel or film-script, people would not believe it!

Rob said...

However, this is an example of what I think, when I think of good overcoming or triumphing over evil. Really, sometimes the little things that seem so sad and trivial are really a bigger deal than they seem to us. This touched me.

Sam said...

Thanks for posting this. When my great uncle died my grandpa and his brother weren't able to drive out to Arlington for the funeral (they had just driven out to see him one last time a few weeks previously and couldn't manage a drive like that again). The only people at the funeral were the Army honor guard, the pastor, and his wife. It hit home when I watched this episode of the West Wing nearly 10 years later:

Thank you for caring for this dear saint of God and being there with that funeral director.

Pr. Lehmann said...

I dearly loved Noel. He was such a kind and gentle man. Not chatty, but always eager to receive the Lord's gifts. I wish I could have been there.

Mark said...

This week on Wednesday, I learned of the death of an 89 year old parishioner through someone who had read the obituary in the paper.

The woman died on Monday at her home. No one called the church, though she had been a vital part of the congregation all her life, even well into the years that she was homebound.

She often said she didn't want anyone to make a fuss over her death when it came. All she wanted was a graveside service with Psalm 13 (which is sort of sad in itself), the Apostles Creed, and the Nunc Dimittis. Only, not even her son knew that.

I guess she got her "no fuss" wish but it seems all so incomplete. We will remember her in the prayers and give thanks for her life on Sunday.

WM Cwirla said...

Grace upon grace in Jesus. "For as often as you have done it for the least of these...." That's a great story. True theology of the cross. Thanks.

Becky said...

I'm so glad that you taught me that there is nothing wrong with praying for the dead. I didn't know Noel, but I will pray for a peaceful rest for him.

Terry Maher said...

Which is Past Elder when logged on to Google as himself personally. What a great story! Relocates the stuff discussed here to where the rubber meets the road where it really counts.

Brenda Higley said...

I really can't manage any words, but thank you for sharing this moving story as it will help me look for the "Noels" that are in my life.

Thanks, Pastor.


scotty said...


Could not agree more...I shared the same thoughts with Pastor Weedon this morning...

Anonymous said...

After a service at the funeral home
where there were only 5 people in
attendance, our parish started a
custom of having at least one elder
attend a funeral where this type of
attendance might be anticipated.

While at the St. Louis Sem as a
student, a Clayton Funeral Director
would hire us to attend funerals
like this and be pall bearers. It
was really sad and I did it only once

Anonymous said...

Very poignant and moving.

Where two or three are gathered . . .


Jim Huffman said...

One time, you commented that God's gifts were not diminished if there were few to receive them. This is one of those times. Sad, but beautiful if we remember that the site was crammed with angels and saints worshiping with you and the lonely funeral director.

William Weedon said...


Kept thinking of the angels who carried Lazarus home. Noel was kind of like a Lazarus in today's world. "Lord, let at last..."

Jeremy Loesch said...

God bless you Will for sharing this experience. Yesterday was the funeral of Rev. Richard Miller. The church was packed, which was great. But in reading your words, Dick did a lot of his ministry in the shadows, in obscurity, only seeking the glory of the Lord. I was heartened by the presence of the brothers from the circuit. You're a good little boy pastor!

Conducting the service with you and the funeral director reminds me of the weekly Thursday matins service we have prior to Bible class. The class itself has 6 regular members. Sometimes 4 gather to pray matins, sometimes one other person comes. It's even been just me at times. But..."the voice of prayer is never silent".

Thanks for sharing.


Stephanie said...

Reminds of when one of the developmentally disabled men on my caseload in Quincy IL passed away. No friends, no family attended the graveside service - just a couple of us from the workshop he attended Monday through Friday and the director of the group home. I'm sure that Noel was happy that you were there!

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Wangerin's "The making of a minister" comes quickly to mind.

- Jeff