Remembering Appalachia

Kevin McCoart (family photo)

 

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t remember my time spent ministering in Appalachia. Deep blue skies draw me back. Rolling hills draw me back. In wintertime, gray mud draws me back to those days loving and serving in such an amazing part of God’s Kingdom. Today on the radio a country music song took me back, and my mind immediately recalled a particular space and time which is forever tattooed to my psyche.

It was 1982 and one of our parishioners had died. We were a tiny church of 40 families deeply connected to each other by time and circumstance. I didn’t know the parishioner who died but was invited to join the family at the cemetery where I was instructed to wear warm work clothes, work boots and to bring gloves. Unbeknownst to me it was customary for family members to dig the grave of their loved ones. Though I had never participated in such an activity it somehow made simple sense to me, and I was honored to be invited. I was 22 at the time, and we took turns digging, shoveling and shaping the sides of the grave. The ground was forgiving, and we made progress quickly. The one thing I remember most clearly was how one of the men expertly used an axe to cleanly cut the straight sides of the six-foot hole. The hole was a work of art. While the men dug and carved out a final resting place for their loved one, a bottle of booze was passed among the group, and we all took shots as we shoveled. Stories were told. Tears were shed, and in the process I think some healing occurred. The day of the burial, prayers were said, and the wooden casket was lowered into the ground using ropes. Family members, both men and women, took turns shoveling the dirt back into the hole on top of the casket. The process took a little bit of time, and as the filling up of the hole continued, stories were told about their loved one, and his memory was honored.

My mind is filled with memories such as this. Rich. Real. Messy. Earthy. I loved being there every day.

Fast forward four years later and my own younger brother died in a car accident where he was the passenger. Kevin’s anniversary is September 20th. Kevin died 26 years ago and part of me is caught between not knowing how time has flown by so fast and wishing Kevin would walk into the room even to this day.

I remember at Kevin’s grave site people we didn’t know used a tractor to dig out a hole for his casket. A carpet of artificial turf was carefully laid over the mound of dirt. A concrete container had been lowered into place, and Kevin’s metal casket would be placed inside, and then a concrete lid placed on the box. Our family and friends gathered around as the priest said prayers. When the prayers were finished the funeral director motioned to us to return to our cars. I couldn’t move. I stood frozen in place wanting to do something, anything, other than walk away. I was torn between not wanting to move or to make a scene and wanting desperately to hold the dirt in my hands which would cover my brother. I ached and I was numb at the same time. How could the authorities ask us to leave? Kevin’s body was still with us. Still in sight. Still plainly in our care, and I couldn’t stand that someone else was about to bury him and they wanted us to leave. They didn’t know him, love him, share a room with him for 22 years, know his every move and breath. I couldn’t leave him in another’s care. I never felt more neutered in my life. I convinced my family to go home and receive guests at our house, and they agreed to leave me until Kevin was buried. The funeral home and folks from the cemetery didn’t take kindly to me refusing to leave, but they could see I wasn’t going to budge. They let me stay while the tractor shoveled dirt in on Kevin. When the tractor was finished and the men got shovels to level out the site, one of the men took mercy on me and handed me his shovel. I moved dirt and crouched and cried as snot ran from my nose.

The authorities stood around staring at me not knowing quite how to handle me. I didn’t – nor couldn’t – blame them; I knew I was from another culture they could not understand. When I finally stood to leave, I spotted a friend who had waited at a distance so I would not be alone. He didn’t approach the whole time I was burying my brother, just stood at a respectful distance as I did what I needed to do. When I was finished he came up to me, grabbed me in his arms and we both wept. We pulled ourselves together and drove to meet my family at our home.

Not a day goes by that I do not remember Appalachia and all it taught me.

Peace friends,

Chuck

 

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2 Comments

  • Mary says:

    Always in my heart.

  • Stacy High-Brinkley says:

    Chuck oh Chuck – years later and it still wrenches my heart about Kevin – what a wonderful pic of him. Love you Chuck – hope all is well with you !

    Stacy, Karen and the kiddos!

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