He carried the casket of a childhood friend, a young man who had enlisted in the army. The fellow had been killed in a far away land. The body had been recovered, sewn together, and sent to the family so they were able to hold a funeral.
Although he didn't support the war or even the military, he had been glad to support his friend. Now he could lend his assistance one more time. He lifted the brass handle on his corner. With five other compatriots, one the soldier's brother, he carried the black coffin high.
"God hates you!" someone yelled.
Alongside of the funeral procession, demonstrators gathered. They held signs protesting the war. They shouted.
The presence of such language outside the funeral home had come as a shock. No one had warned him. Outside the cemetery, it felt less hurtful. He'd known he would be a pallbearer. He'd seen how close the hearse had driven to the gates and the nearby, open grave on the other side. He'd had time to think about the demonstration.
One of the picketers ran up as close as the cemetery gates would allow.
"God killed him! God killed him!" he yelled. "He hates you sinners!"
Other attendees of the funeral rushed to fill the space between the protestors and the family of the deceased. It sounded like there might be a fight. But he couldn't look. He had to carry the body.
At the end of the ceremony, he tossed a shovel of dirt into the grave, as he'd been asked to do. Then, after a conference with his friend's family, he returned to the gate. The family had decided to leave the graveyard through a different exit. He took their place in walking through the demonstration. He felt it would be better to have strangers yell at him than at anyone else. He and two of his other friends, accompanied by the funeral home staff, met the protestors.
To his surprise, many had left. The few demonstrators who held signs and shouted slogans seemed to recognize that no one leaving were soldiers or members of the family.
"God hates you," said one of those, a short, older woman. She crossed her arms over her chest and scowled at him.
"Do you really believe that?" he said. "Me, personally?"
She drew a breath, prepared to shout an anti-war slogan. Then she saw the pendant on his chest. It hung from a chain around his neck, over his tie.
"Are you even a Christian?" she asked. Her scowl didn't change.
"I believe in peace," he replied. He spoke with her for a half-minute in a reasonable tone and she responded without shouting. Her friends took no interest in him. They seemed more concerned with one another.
When he made the mistake of referring to enlightenment, she jumped on that as an admission.
"You can't be enlightened or you wouldn't support a soldier. Or his family."
"You may be right. I'm just doing my best. I wouldn't want to claim anything special. It's like the commandment you have about vanity."
"You mean, 'You shall not use the name of the Lord in vain?' That's not about vanity." She set her hands on her hips and leaned closer.
"Doesn't taking the name of god in vain happen when you say 'God bless you' or 'God damn you?'"
"That's the right meaning, yes." She gave a curt nod.
"Although saying 'God bless you' is nice, it is said out of vanity, as if those blessings are anyone's to give. They're not."
"Good of you to notice. No one talks about that part anymore."
"Likewise, the damnations of God are not just anyone's to give, not according to the commandment. No one should pretend to speak in the holy spirit out of vanity."
"That's not what our pastor would say.” She retreated a step and crossed her arms. “He'd tell you that commandment comes from the established clergy trying to claim that only they have the right to speak for God."
"By the words of their holy book, what the professionals think doesn't matter. Their prejudices are not God's. When they mistake their hatred for a holy thing, when they pretend to speak for God and do not, that's when they commit a sin. To misrepresent holiness ... what could be worse?"
At that point, a pair of the other protestors overheard. They marched over and shouted slogans. He noticed they didn't seem aimed at convincing him as much putting as stop to the conversation. He decided to catch up to his friends. Before he left, he shared an uncertain nod with the woman, who scowled.