THERE IS A TIME for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…
Thursday was a day to mourn as the Helbling family celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for my father-in-law, Tom Helbling. He died on February 5 at the age of 90.
It was an unusually frigid February day in central Minnesota with the temp hovering around zero as we gathered at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman. Over the course of more than three hours, memories imprinted upon me. Memories shaped in part by a global pandemic, which affected the ways in which we could be comforted. Randy and I declined hugs and handshakes. There would be no luncheon, the time of one-on-one visits. No getting together with siblings, at least for us, either before the funeral or after.
Yet, simply being together in the same building brought comfort. Comfort came, too, in flowers and music and Scripture. Like the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, read by my sister-in-law Rosie. When she read a time to embrace and a time to refrain, I thought, how fitting for a funeral during COVID-19.
Images seared into my mind—like the lowering of the casket lid over my father-in-law. Or the surprise of seeing my then preschool-aged son in an image atop the casket spray. He was perched on the seat of his grandpa’s Ford 9N tractor in a photo I took decades ago.
Many times throughout the service—especially during the farewell chant and song of angels welcoming Dad into heaven—I focused on the heavenly angels painted on the ceiling high above the altar. What a gift the artists and craftsmen of this aged church left for mourners. Art comforts.
So does music, especially music. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and many other songs filled this massive church with the most beautiful, heavenly music performed by musicians in the balcony. St. Michael’s has incredible acoustics. Randy and I suggested to his classmate Janel prior to the service that perhaps the musical team could play a polka or waltz in honor of Dad, who so enjoyed both and who also played piano, organ and accordion (not the concertina, as the priest noted). My sister-in-law Vivian shared with me later that the hymn “Whispering Hope,” played before the casket closed, was a popular waltz at wedding dances in the area and was a favorite of her parents. I love nuances like that which personalize a funeral.
As I sat through the service next to Randy on an uncomfortably hard straight-back pew, physically-distanced from family, I determined not to cry. I didn’t want to cry into my mask. I considered how surreal this felt to experience a funeral during a global pandemic. And how surreal also to experience a funeral during Minnesota’s longest cold snap in nearly three decades.
We dressed for the weather, wearing long johns under our dress pants. Randy told me his dad wore long johns often back on the farm so this extra layer of warmth seemed another fitting tribute. Before heading to the cemetery, we slipped out of dress shoes into snow boots.
And then, once grandchildren slid their grandfather’s casket into the hearse for the short drive to the cemetery, mourners followed by foot, crossing Minnesota State Highway 25. A church officiant stood half-way into the traffic lane, bundled for warmth, purple mask covering his face, holding a pole with crucifix atop as traffic waited out of respect for us to cross the road. It was a strong visual moment for me. The red pick-up truck parked curbside contrasting with mourners dressed in black. Waiting vehicles. Masks and stocking caps and bald heads (among those who chose to brave the elements minus head coverings). The priest in his, oh, so Minnesotan red buffalo plaid coat and matching ear flapper cap. An icy parking lot with occasional welcome patches of gravel. And then, the final steps across the snow to the burial site.
As my nieces and nephews carried my father-in-law’s casket, I felt the heaviness of grief. The cold of death, balanced by the promise of eternal life. Grief and joy.
And then, in one last act of love, we each stepped up to pull flowers from the casket spray to lay upon the casket. I chose a red rose, not yet blackened by the cold, placed it on the shiny grey surface. And then, with my mittened hand, I patted the lid twice in a final farewell to my father-in-law.
© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Thank you, Audrey. And, hug each other for us since we were unable to do so yesterday.
Will do. Once this pandemic is over, we all need to get together and hug and toast Dad and reminisce.
Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. I had to look up Buckman – I had not heard of that Mn town. God bless you and your husband with strength, peace, and comfort in Christ as you grieve this man dear to your hearts. The music listed would sound heavenly in that Church, from the pictures you shared!
Thank you, Juli. Buckman is one of those small towns you likely do not know the location of unless you grew up there or in the Little Falls area.
A very poignant experience and reflection I’m thankful you were able to have. Almost like normal, even in MN cold. He would be proud and thankful. Helps to have such a beautiful church, Buckman is a fair drive from Faribault. A good man the world was blessed to have so long.
I appreciate your observations and thoughts. The funeral was “sort of” like normal, but not really in terms of personal comfort given and received.
And, yes, Buckman is about a 2.5-hour drive from Faribault. It’s located some 20 miles southeast of Little Falls.
Please accept my heartfelt condolences for the loss of Randy’s father. I’m sure you all will miss him.
Thank you, dear Norma.
I’m so sorry for your loss and that you weren’t able to partake in the usual traditions of funerals and close time with family.