Wednesday, April 04, 2007

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, 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 occultic 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 pin-striped 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 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 we eight pall-bearers, "Carry my friend with honor." He repeated himself with conviction, and 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, Massachusetts, with cauldron, and blade, and 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 okay 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 contrast it with a man who yet lives.

The man who yet lives 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 which life is more tiresome to the gracious Nazarene I serve. Which life is wearisomely beyond the pall?

I was strangely, but deeply honored to be asked to be a pall-bearer for my friend the Witch. Somehow I am ashamed to know the man who yet lives, and declares to serve my Jesus, and it makes me wonder what it is that only God can see beyond the pall-bearing.


Sally said...

Phil thank you for going where so many would have refused to go. Peace and blessings

Adam Gonnerman said...

I don't know what to say, but I feel like I should say something. That post was very meaningful to me. Thank you.

Pastor Phil said...


Thanks for being one of those people as well.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey Adam,

Thankks Adam. It is a scene beyond our worldviiew isn't it?

Anonymous said...

What you wrote was very eloquent and touching. Brought me back to that day and to the many times when my "Christian" friends question my friendship with a witch. When my "standard" answer is "Jesus taught us to love. What better what to show His love than to love a friend without judgment?"
Thanks for having the strenght to say it publicly!

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written Phil. I'm so glad that you were there and I know others that were there appreciated your presence as well.

Pastor Phil said...


Questioning our friendships with anybody is a strange action for a Christian to take. How did we get to this place of demoting unique people to a subhuman class? Keep up those friendships.

Pastor Phil said...

Hey MM,

I'm glad you were there too.

Marieke said...

There is such a heaviness in my heart, but also gladness, after reading this.

Heaviness because I know I've had a very limited worldview for much of my life (till recent years) and I've hurt people because of it. But a gladness that others such as you are living to follow Jesus and none other, even into the "forbidden" and "forsaken" cultures and communities on this earth, and setting an example for me to follow.

Thanks for sharing this.

Pastor Phil said...


My heart has always been in the strange places. Perhaps my wiring is reversed.

cern said...

I kept trying to post a reply to this last night. I couldn't find the right words that would convey all the things I wanted to say about how special it was that you were a part of Shawns final rite of passage.

I posted something on C&CT earlier about my teaching experiences. About learning to love by loving, about learning to value through valuing others. That seems to be entwined in this.

But more... we can honour and respect the living in these difficult times. A very dear friend of mine died in November. He too was a Pagan. His mother, an atheist, felt more comfortable with a traditional anglican funeral for her son. Indeed, he had written that into his will with a few additions that kept the tone broadly Christian, yet also pointed to some of his beliefs about the natural world. I felt honoured to be chosen to support his mother at the service. The vicar learned a few things about Pagans with that funeral. He learned that we care. He learned that there is that same capacity for love and compassion in our hearts that he would normally attribute to Christians. He also learned that we respect the rites of other faiths, even when we don't share a belief in those faiths ourselves.

Most of all though Phil, you were a good and loyal friend. That speaks volumes in any community.



Pastor Phil said...


Thanks for the gracious words.

Marieke said...

Phil, I don't think your wiring is reversed. I think it's exactly the way it should be. Anyone who thinks otherwise has got THEIR wires crossed!

Anonymous said...

wow leaves me speechless. Witchy poo funerals, now thats a challenge!

Pastor Phil said...

Hi Philip,

The great challenge for us is to have something to say in these settings, and to still speak with grace. Speachless is probably our best starting point.

mark said...

Thank you Phil, for posting this, and for having the grace to continue on the path that our Lord has set for you.