Beyond the Pall

I stood outside the doors waiting with seven other men. We were all dressed in black. The mood was somber, but then again, it almost always is—especially when death knocks earlier than expected.

The doors broke open. The coffin emerged, and we took our positions. My friend in front of me had to throw his long black cape over his shoulder and reposition his tall pointed hat upon his head. The amulets and trinkets bounced off the patchwork of his cape. Behind me a tall young man in a tight black T-shirt emblazoned with occult imagery and a black leather coat took his place. As we made our way down the steps to the hearse, I had to kick aside the flowing cape, which filled the steps in front of me. I, in my black pinstriped suit and deep grey wool overcoat, was one of two conservatively dressed men appointed to carry the casket. The six witches, and neo-pagans were dressed in their regalia, and the one other conservatively dressed man was young. He wore a sharp black suit, a crisp black shirt and black tie with one small round lapel pin—the symbol of the First Church of Satan.

What had brought me to this moment is the stuff fables are made of. The newspaper had announced this funeral with the words, "Witches Mourn Their King." I was a simple Christian pastor, and somehow I felt at home.

We made our way to the back of the hearse, and together pushed the casket upon the rollers. Then together we watched the doors close.

The minutes before the casket arrived at the door and came into our hands were as surreal as any I've experienced. It was surreal that I was there. It was perhaps more surreal that I was comfortable. We stood and made small talk. The younger men looked out of sorts, as though this was a part of life yet unknown—some rite of passage only now being experienced—except for the young Satanist. He was calm, in control and appeared familiar with the deeper moments of life. It was he who was considerate enough to suggest that we all greet and learn each others' names. During those same moments, a close friend of the deceased, a large man with a severe limp adorned in a long black cape stood at the bottom of the stairs and said ceremoniously to the eight pallbearers, "Carry my friend with honor." He repeated himself with conviction and a touch of sorrow, perhaps wishing he were healthy enough to play his part in the moment, "Carry my friend with honor."

Between the wake the night before and this day of the gravesite service, hundreds of people had come. Some traveled from as a far as Canada to honor my deceased friend the high priest of his little circle of a Salem variety of witchcraft.

The services were decidedly witchy, filled with some of the pomp of Wiccan ceremony and some of the drama of Halloween in Salem, Mass., with cauldron, blade, broom and skull.

For the two days of services I sat with my dead friend's mother. She, like myself, was a Pentecostal Christian. She grieved and worried over the death of her son and felt uncomfortable with the witchiness of the ceremonies, though she had seen it dozens of times by now. When it came to the conclusion of the gravesite service, each person was given the opportunity to honor the deceased by taking a memory of his life and ritually casting a pinch of salt upon the casket. She asked me if it was OK with God to do this. I leaned over and whispered to her, "I think God would like you to remember that you have been the salt of the earth in your son's life. Of course it's okay." She cried and limply tossed her grains of salt upon the gray metal box.

Few funerals in America have the output of emotion I experienced over these two days. People openly cried and wailed and expressed words of appreciation. This man, barely 40 years of age, had gathered this strange troupe together in his death, and I watched people from all walks of life: Christians, witches, atheists and Satanists speak of their respect for him. There were many people who had been touched by his life and felt that his help had been instrumental in their lives. One Christian spoke of her return to Christianity from witchcraft and stated that he had been instrumental in helping her find her way back to Jesus. This was the surrealism; many people mourned him though he was a witch, a voodoo practitioner and even joined the ranks of Anton LaVey's organization in his last years of life. To most people he lived beyond the pall. Yet to some he offered words of wisdom and hope.

I consider the life of this strange man who died, and I contrast it with a man who yet lives. A know another man who is a Christian pastor I once served alongside. He says all the right things and appears at cursory glance to be the model of citizenship. His dress is impeccable. His actions are sharp and decisive. His ministry is successful by all appearances, but a deeper look reveals a dark underbelly of corruption. Subtle lies, clever manipulation and political savvy are his trademark. He rules his little kingdom with an iron fist and crushes those who refuse to labor under his heavy-handed control. Good pastors have been lost, churches have been dismantled and reputations have been ruined under his guidance.

I wonder what the gracious God I serve thinks of these two different lives. Which life is wearisomely beyond the pall?

I was strangely but deeply honored to be asked to be a pallbearer for my friend the witch. Somehow, I am at times ashamed to know the other pastor who declares to serve my Jesus, and it makes me wonder what it is that only God can see beyond the pallbearing.

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