Comforting souls
November 9 2001 by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor

Comforting souls | Friday, Nov 9, 2001

Friday, Nov 9, 2001

Comforting souls

By Tony W. Cartledge BR Editor On the wall beside my computer is a sepia-toned picture of four hooligans above a rustic painting of a wilderness cabin. One of the men is my great-uncle Pete, who was posing with two rowdy friends and a slick-haired snake oil salesman who had come through town somewhere back in the late 1930's. Uncle Pete also painted the peaceful watercolor (on the side of a cardboard box), and made the oak frame by hand.

A brain tumor took Uncle Pete from this world long before I was ready for him to go, and to this day I grieve that there wasn't more time to hear his tales of life as a lumberjack in the great Northwest.

I only knew him until I was 6, and yet it's his picture I have on my wall. I always admired his adventurous and creative spirit. Perhaps I've subconsciously hoped to pick up some of it by osmosis.

When Uncle Pete died, they stretched him out in a coffin in the front room of the house in which I lived until age four. Family members sat up with him, according to an old Southern tradition, until he was buried.

Uncle Pete's bedroom remained unchanged for a long time after that, and I used to hang out there, looking at his books, his paintings, his handmade furnishings. When electrical lines reached the countryside, he put a light bulb in an old lantern and hung it from the high ceiling. A chain with a cowboy boot on the end of it snaked down low enough for a child to reach. The bulb was green, and it gave the room a unique feeling.

That light bulb is at least 50 years old and it is still functional. The house is unused now, and the power is turned off, but I still remember the haunting glow of Uncle Pete's room and the mystery that always surrounded him.

I thought of that when I read a Religion News Service article noting that Orthodox Jews in New York City have organized an around-the-clock vigil over body parts pulled from what is left of the World Trade Center. The Orthodox interpret Jewish law as requiring that a body never be left alone until it is buried, usually no more than 24 hours after death.

The vigil is called "sitting shmira," and it's being done in a tent set up outside the New York Medical Examiner's office. Traditionally, men watch over men's bodies, and women watch over women's bodies. Often they sing psalms during the vigil.

The rules have been bent a little. Since devout Orthodox Jews don't drive or use public transportation on the Sabbath, organizers recruited female college students from a Jewish woman's college near the morgue to keep the vigil during Sabbath hours.

Norman Lamm, the school's president, told the New York Times that the need to fulfill the commandment superseded the gender requirements. He also said it is just as important to provide vigil for non-Jewish bodies. "The idea that you can have companionship even in death is a very consoling thought, whether you are Jewish or not," he said.

One of the students, Judith Kaplan, said keeping vigil was her way of helping in a devastating tragedy.

"This is something I can do," she said. "And it's surreal. You absolutely feel the souls there, and you feel them feeling better."

Most Baptists I know would question whether keeping vigil over the dead can directly affect the souls of the departed. We believe, as Jesus indicated to the repentant thief, that a person's soul goes directly to its eternal destination, rather than hanging around its former abode in hopes that someone will sit close to console it or give a prayerful boost.

Yet, there is something to be said for giving honor and respect to the dead, whether we do it through sitting up with the body, placing fresh flowers on a grave, or cherishing keepsakes that keep memories alive.

Of all the blessings God has given, none is more precious than the hope we have that those who die in Christ will celebrate an eternal reunion in a heavenly home.

Some who reject our faith ridicule this belief and dismiss it as "pie in the sky."

I like pie, and I'm glad Uncle Pete did, too.

I could be a regular pie evangelist.

According to Matthew 28:19-20, that's the whole idea.

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11/9/2001 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge , BR Editor | with 0 comments
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