“It Was My Privilege”

When retired Army Colonel William Albert Porter Junior died, his family found the directions he’d left in his will specifying how he wanted his funeral to be. Even though they hadn’t been involved at the parish for years—he was unwilling to join the Methodist Church and his wife couldn’t make herself become a Catholic—they hated “the liberal direction of the Episcopal Church” in ordaining women and in revising the Book of Common Prayer. Whether they liked it or not, though, they were still on our books and came occasionally, usually on Christmas and Easter.

I went to their home to visit the widow the day after the Colonel died in a hospital in Memphis. She sat very stiffly and told me he had directed that the funeral was to be at the Church of the Holy Incarnation. We talked about the readings and the hymns that he had selected; he had instructed that the service should be from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and he wanted the minimum number of the shortest readings allowable. He directed that we would sing “My Country ’tis of Thee,” and we were not, in his words, to “drag it out.” Then she told me that he had specifically stated that he wanted a young person from the parish to be an acolyte at his funeral, reminding whoever might be reading his posthumous note that he had been an acolyte there when he was a young man. He had told her several times that it had meant a lot to him to lead the stately procession into the church as the first words of the funeral service were spoken by the priest: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live . . . .”

So later that afternoon, I called our Number One Top Acolyte, who said she’d love to help but couldn’t miss school the day of the funeral because she had a big test. The second-best acolyte, not nearly as reliable as my preferred choice, was in the same class dreading the same test. And that left me with Vinnie, who at the time had long, out-of-control, bushy reddish hair that usually shrouded his eyes. He slouched. He would not have been the Colonel’s first choice, either.

Vinnie was a sweet kid but easily distracted, so I always had to remind him when he was supposed to give the collection plates to the ushers or close the gate at the altar rail. But the Colonel had left instructions, and this was my last chance to help his family obey his final orders: I had to find an acolyte, and Vinnie was my only remaining option.

The morning of the funeral, I received the body into the church and met the Colonel’s son, who’d arrived from Germany the night before. Captain William Albert Porter the Third stood as straight upright as a living human can. When we shook hands, he squeezed my hand with effort and purpose, as if to let me know he was in control, establishing his manly superiority. I squeezed back, not trying to win a contest of gripping masculinity, but just to let hi know that I wasn’t the wimp he undoubtedly assumed I ought to be, as a member of the clergy.

The Captain nodded approvingly, and then he saw Vinnie the acolyte. Well, I think he mostly saw his hair, and that was all he needed to see. Vinnie represented everything the Colonel and his son the Captain found wrong with America today, and I think he was about to protest when his wife interceded: “Not now, William. This is not your watch.” He allowed a tactical retreat but gave me a glare, letting me know he would hold me personally responsible if Vinnie the shaggy acolyte ruined his father’s service.

The funeral was at the parish, just the burial service—no Eucharist so we can get this over with—and Vinnie led the procession up the aisle, just as the Colonel had all those years ago. Any sign that Vinnie was touched or moved in any way was well concealed, possibly by all that hair. The homily was brief, as per instructions, and we marched out singing “My Country, ’tis of Thee,” distinctly up-tempo. After the service, I told Vinnie he didn’t have to go to the graveside, that he could go on back to school. When he said he’d be glad to go the cemetery, I assumed he just wasn’t in a hurry to get back to algebra or history or something. I chuckled a little to myself, remembering that I’d done the same thing when I was an acolyte. I told him to bring the processional cross and said he could ride with me in the funeral procession, just behind the hearse.

The service of committal at the graveside is usually brief, but at a burial of a former member of the military, it can get somewhat more complicated. I’d seen it before, but I’m always moved by the soldiers removing the American flag from the casket and folding it—slowly, precisely—and giving it to the family. Then there was the twenty-one-gun salute, always a bit jarring for me, and then the bugler blowing Taps, which inevitably brings tears to my eyes.

At the Colonel’s burial, the family waited for the cemetery crew to lower the casket into the concrete vault, and then each of them threw a shovelful of dirt onto it. It took a few minutes to accomplish this, and while they were still trying to coax some of the younger grandchildren to take the shovel, the Colonel’s widow made her way over to me carefully, leaning on a walking cane and a grandson. She said, “Thank you, Father Hinton. The service was nicely done—the Colonel would have approved.” I said, “Thank you, ma’am.” Then she turned to Vinnie, who was standing next to me and whose mind seemed to be wandering. She said, “And thank you, young man.” I thought “Okay, this is it—the moment for Vinnie to do or say something nonconformist or goofy, something to ruin the Colonel’s funeral.” I glanced across the gravesite to see the Captain sending me a preemptory glare.

But Vinnie nodded his bushy head politely and said, “Yes ma’am—it was my privilege.”

Mrs. Porter smiled and patted Vinnie on the cheek, and said, “You’re a good boy. You need to get a haircut.”

To which Vinnie smiled very slightly and said, “Yes ma’am.”

This post originally appeared in Prodigal, a novel by Kee Sloan.

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