Free Fiction Monday: A Matter for God
George manages funerals for his church. The flower arrangements, the food, even the air temperature.
But when a parishioner that nobody likes dies, he finds himself facing a moral dilemma—questioning everything he ever believed.
“A Matter for God,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.
A Matter for God
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
It was my third funeral of the week. The first was a large, gaudy affair, as perfectly timed as a wedding, flowers draping the aisles, the pews, even the choir loft in the back. Pastor Valera even had us put extra chairs at the end of aisles and at the back. It interrupted the flow of the service—the boys and I, we have a routine—but it turned out to be necessary. A handful of people even had to stand.
I’d seen few funerals like that one. Some out-of-town choir came in—famous, Pastor Valera said—and sang Mozart’s “Requiem,” or at least parts of it. The Lacrimosa, a few other sections. Pastor Valera didn’t want much more, as he said a requiem was Catholic and the only time we uttered that word in this holy place was when we recited the Apostle’s Creed, and the church fathers have been arguing for some time about accepting the reformed version where we substitute “holy Christian church” for “holy Catholic.”
The words we use usually don’t matter to me. I’ve been coming here for seventy-five years—was born down the block, baptized at the very font up front, and will probably lie in state before the altar, just like the folks we put to rest week after week, year after year.
Strange thing about those folks: not all of them are ours. The second funeral belonged to a young kid who hadn’t set foot in a church, but he died slow and messy, some wasting disease, and his grandparents insisted on a good Christian send-off, as if the lack of church in his life was the reason his body had turned on him and gave him eight years, when the rest of us get decades.
The boys and I, we preside over these things—or so Pastor Valera says. We’re the ones who decorate the sanctuary, carry the coffin if the funeral home director lets us, make sure the family gets the front pews, and help everyone process in. We wear the suits we used to wear when we worked nine-to-five, or if we never worked a dress-up job, the suits our wives used to make us wear every Sunday of our lives.
Harold, his wife likes it that he spends his days at church now that the bank no longer wants his time. And she’s not the only one. The two other wives feel the same way. Only Stan and I are without, me because Agnes died five years ago, and him because he never married.
Agnes’s funeral was strange: me sitting alone in that front pew—our son James and his family weren’t able to come—and the boys, my friends, helping me out of the church like I was a stranger. I think on that funeral at every one I attend, and I try to offer my arm as comfort, my silent presence as reassurance to anyone who needs it. Once I found a little boy sobbing on the floor of the men’s room, and I held him for a good five minutes, his tiny fingernails poking holes in my sleeves, his tears making dark circles on the wool. When the storm subsided, I sent him out on his own—I hate these days when even offering simple comfort arouses suspicion—and by the time I emerged, he was in his mother’s arms, thumb in his mouth, head on her shoulder, and eyes closed.
If only grief were that simple for me.
Agnes used to work the funerals too. Downstairs, in the basement of the church, she made finger sandwiches without the crusts, sheet cakes, and soft sweet butter cookies. The other ladies, they made coffee and sweet Kool-Aide and Presbyterian punch. They put the sugar cubes in tiny bowls and milk in the pretty creamers, but Agnes organized the feast.
After she died, the sandwiches were sometimes stale, the sheet cakes were store-bought, and the cookies were Mrs. Field’s.
I don’t go downstairs anymore, except before the service. The smell of coffee makes me think I’ll see Agnes as I round the corner past the day care, see her standing in the big old-fashioned kitchen, an apron she embroidered around her ample waist, and hands strong and sure wrapped in mitts as she pulled her creations out of an oven built to house two roasts.
James never told me why he didn’t come to his mother’s funeral. He didn’t have to. Later his wife mumbled something about deadlines and work and the difficulty in getting plane flights, but we both knew she was lying to make me feel better.
James never lied. He never mentioned it at all.
And because I didn’t either, the deadlines went away, the work became less important, and somehow my son’s family found the time to fly. Maybe he feels the need to see me, the one still alive, or maybe he regretted missing the opportunity to stare at his mother’s dead face, and to know, once and for all, she was gone.
You see, nights alone in front of my television set, these things rattle through my brain. I cook myself a healthy dinner, just as Agnes would have wanted, and while I eat, I read. But there’s only so much reading a man can do, and after a while, the television becomes company: human faces, human voices. They matter in ways I’d once taken for granted, back when I had deadlines and work and not enough time to see the family. I think about such matters even more after a funeral like that third one that week.
Several things were different about that funeral. It was an early afternoon service, and for some reason, the family had an hour of visitation before the service. Most folks have visitation at the funeral home the night before, but not these people. Maybe they knew that no one would show up. Pastor Valera did. When he’d been asked to do the service, he’d looked at me, and said softly, “The Lord works in mysterious ways,” and closed his office door.
He wasn’t mourning. None of us mourned the death of Edith Kahill. She had been the bane of our existence since she returned to the church about ten years before. She’d served on the Ladies Auxiliary until Agnes found a way to ease her off—the other women were refusing to come as long as Edith was there. Edith, who insisted on deciding which funeral got the silver tea service and which one “would ruin it.” Edith, who believed that sheet cakes were tacky and coffee should be made from fresh beans. Edith, who once sent Sophie Stanglass home because she wasn’t dressed well enough to work in the kitchen during old Mayor Frasier’s funeral.
I later found out that Pastor Valera was upset because Edith’s family had asked for the full-service funeral, complete with homily. That afternoon, I found him at his desk, texts open around him, yellow legal paper crumpled and lying on the floor, hand under his chin and eyes staring at the weeping cherry tree outside his window.
“Want to hear a confession, George?” he asked.
I stood in the door, hands hanging at my side. Pastor Valera and I had never been close, through no fault of his. He was a young man, younger than my son, and I’d always seen him as a part of the new school. His sermons were about life now, how to reconcile God with the pandemic and governmental scandal and too much debt. I liked fire and brimstone, like Pastor Robbins preached long about fifty years ago, when I was a teenager and needed to hear it. Pastor Valera didn’t really speak to me, but I thought maybe God had moved on, or I had already learned my lesson, or maybe I had stopped listening in just the right way.
“All right, Reverend,” I had said.
“Come on in.” He beckoned me with an ink-stained hand.
I’d never realized he’d written out his homilies. I thought that he used the fancy computer that sat on his credenza and, God forgive me, I thought he had an entire series of sermons listed by topic, and simply opened a file and printed out the sermon the night before.
I came in and, after glancing at him for permission, closed the door. Slowly I sank into the plush chair across from his desk. He didn’t seem to notice my hesitation. I hadn’t sat across from a minister since the day I planned Agnes’s funeral.
“George, how did you do it, year in and year out?” he asked. “How were you so polite to her?”
That was when I realized we were talking about Edith.
Some in the church thought she had singled me out because they saw me, every Sunday, nod and disappear down the stairs after Edith yelled at me. She thought the church too cold for the elderly, and she blamed me, since I was the one who had headed the committee that hired the janitor.
Every Sunday, I went down the stairs halfway, pretending to talk to the janitor about the heat. I waited until Edith was in her pew, sweater wrapped ostentatiously around her, leather gloves on her tiny fingers, and then I came up, flashed her a high sign and she would frown at me, as if I were making a promise she knew I would break.
Every Sunday after service, she would come over to me, and say, “You know, George, if the church were this warm when the service started, we wouldn’t have so many out ill during the winter.” I, of course, refrained from telling her that the church was warmer at the end of the service because of the number of people in it, not because anyone had touched the boiler.
How did I do it? How was I so polite to her?
“I never figured it was worth being anything else,” I said.
Pastor Valera nodded and half smiled and said, “You know she tried to get me fired.”
I had not known that, and I was a deacon. “You’re kidding.”
He stared at me. His eyes were as dark as my son’s and lined with the webbing that marked the first stage of middle age.
“She did,” he said. “She went above the Elders, and to the Presbytery. They wrote to me, and asked me why one of my flock was so unhappy. It’s hard to explain that she was always unhappy. I tried, and they said it was my duty to make her feel at ease. I said nothing, of course, but I wasn’t even sure God could do that.”
Probably not, I thought.
“But I sit here and try to write her funeral sermon, and I can think of nothing kind to say.”
“Don’t you have a sermon for folks you don’t know?”
“You mean Sermon 187?”
I flushed. He wasn’t supposed to know about the nickname. The boys and I, we called his standard “Going Home to the Lord” sermon, the one he gave when he had no other choice, Sermon 187. I confess that the name was mine, because I had assumed all his other sermons were by the number as well.
“Yes,” I said softly.
He shook his head.
“It’s not right, George. I knew her.” He steepled his fingers, rested their tips on his chin, and sighed. “What a sad commentary on me, isn’t it? That I lack enough Christian charity to find something good in one old woman.”
“She did make it difficult,” I said, thinking of the squabbles after Agnes died, the way Edith had nearly killed the Auxiliary with her rules and her pettiness and her sharp, biting words. “But who said you have to be kind?”
He let his hands slide down to the desktop. “I can’t speak ill of the dead.”
“But you can speak the truth,” I said. “You can talk about how women like Edith made it a challenge for those of us who believe in God.”
“She did test our faith, didn’t she?” he asked.
I nodded, thinking that to call it a test was to be polite.
“Thanks, George,” he said, pulling his legal pad close. “I think you might have saved me from sermon 187 yet again.”
The day of Edith’s funeral dawned sunny and beautiful. It was one of those warm spring days that reminded you summer was just around the corner. I went to the church early, and in a silent tribute to my old nemesis, I did talk to the janitor, and made sure the church would be the right temperature. There wouldn’t be much body heat to fill the sanctuary that day.
I went up the stairs and found Howard sitting in the front pew, staring at all the floral arrangements. I recognized them; they were the ones that were left from the two previous funerals that week. I saw no new flowers.
“Where’re the deliveries?” I asked.
He pointed to a spray of yellow roses that were on the communion table, marked In Memorium and signed The Kahills. Beside the yellow roses were four small vases, all signed with the name of institutions. I recognized one: it was the one where Edith’s daughter worked.
“Well,” I said. “Let’s arrange them.”
He caught my arm and looked at me. “Don’t you remember?” he asked.
“What she used to say?”
Then I stopped. I could hear her stentorian voice as clear as an organ chord in the center of the sanctuary. Really, gentlemen, if they weren’t well liked enough in life to merit flowers, do you think we should share those of the people who were well liked in death? It’s almost as if you’re lying before God, saying that these wonderful bouquets are tribute to someone who didn’t deserve it.
I swallowed. “It’s custom, Howard.”
“It’s a custom she didn’t agree with.”
What a pitiful arrangement it would be if we simply had her flowers there. A spray of yellow roses across the bottom of the open casket, and four smallish bouquets on the table above her.
“She deserves the respect,” I said.
“Really?” Howard asked. “She didn’t think anybody else did.” And then he got up and left.
In the end, I moved three card tables across the back and sides of the sanctuary, and with Stan’s help, moved the older bouquets. The cards had been removed long before, and so we simply arranged things as best we could: roses and spring flowers up front, Easter lilies in the back. It didn’t look like a tribute, but it didn’t look like a slap, either.
Funerals, I so well knew, weren’t for the dead. They were for the living. But, as Agnes used to say, they weren’t for the living to perpetuate a lie. Maybe Howard had been right. I didn’t know. All I did know was that I couldn’t stomach the thought. None of us knew how we’d be at the end of our lives, and if Edith Kahill had known she was making that pronouncement about her own funeral, she might not have made it.
The boys and I spent the next hour with the funeral director, moving the coffin into its position at the front of the church. That wooden box was surprisingly light. We put the spray of roses against the bottom half as the director opened the top half.
And there she was: Edith Kahill in all her splendor.
I hadn’t realized what a tiny woman she had been. Her voice, her personality, had loomed so large that I hadn’t realized they were housed in such a fragile frame. She wore a blue dress that I had never seen before, made of silk and woven with small silver threads that accented her hair. Her rings were gone—apparently the family was keeping them—but her signature silver posts glimmered in her ears.
She did not look as if she would wake and tear into us. She did not look as she had in life at all. Without her chin-jutting bravado, she seemed like a tortoise without its shell, or a nearly blind man without his glasses, weak and vulnerable and about to shatter.
I hadn’t even known she was ill. No one had. She had been rushed to the hospital and by the time someone thought to call Pastor Valera, she was dead. Her obituary had said she was eighty.
The family started to arrive shortly after the funeral director. I had only seen the daughter, and then only once. I hadn’t realized until that day how much she resembled Edith. I had always thought the daughter frail and so small that I often wondered how she had stood up to her mother. She probably didn’t have to stand up at all.
The daughter wore a black pantsuit that molded to her tiny frame. A single diamond stickpin glinted from the collar. She examined the flowers before looking at her mother and then, as the mourning often do, she stood with her head bowed, just staring at the body until something seemed to jerk her from a waking dream. Then she moved on.
The son and his family arrived shortly thereafter, and then the second daughter and hers. A granddaughter, the first daughter’s daughter, the one who had accompanied Edith to the hospital, arrived last.
She was young enough to wear her hair long and her skirts short and to have both look good. She had a narrow face, drawn as if she had gotten no sleep. Unlike her grandmother, she was tall and solidly built, with the muscles of a training athlete. In my day, girls didn’t have muscles like that but now it’s considered attractive, even desirable.
I was lighting the last of the candles as she approached the body. She stood over the casket a long, long time. Other family members, cousins, aunts, the handful of spouses, walked past. I tidied the pulpit, and kept an eye on her.
Sometimes, I confess, I go to funerals to watch the other mourners. Somewhere I had gotten it in my head that there is a normal way to mourn, a right and proper way to behave when a beloved dies. What I have seen runs a gamut from the rigid to the incredible. Many people grimace, hold in whatever they feel. Usually the sermon or a hymn, or sometimes the sight of the body itself brings tears. Sometimes it’s as simple as a kind word. Some folks sniffle and dab. Others weep and wail and carry on. Once the boys and I had to break up a fight between the beneficiaries of an estate, and once a family had to haul some of its shouting members outside—a group that hadn’t seen each other since 1959 and had hated each other that entire time.
But I had never seen anyone like this granddaughter. She didn’t have the glazed semi-shocked look of a person stunned by death. There was a malevolence in her gaze, a hatred so profound that I felt as if it violated this sacred place.
She waited until all the others had gone by her, then she placed her hands on the side of the coffin. They gripped the side so hard that I half expected the wood to buckle.
She leaned over and said, “I’m not sorry, Gram. I’d make you die all over again if I could.”
And then she walked away.
A shiver ran through me that had nothing to do with the temperature of the sanctuary. That look, those hands, that tone. The suddenness of Edith’s death. It all added up to me. I don’t know how I knew, exactly, but I knew.
Somehow, her granddaughter had caused her death.
I staggered out the preacher’s door, searching for Pastor Valera. He was in his office, the door closed. The boys were scattered, finishing their work. None of them would be a moral compass anyway.
What could I do? I was an old man who overheard a goodbye that, on the face of it all, seemed ambiguous at best. I couldn’t interrupt the service. I had to wait until the mourning was over.
Then I’d decide what to do.
Somehow we got through the ceremony. Twenty-five family members, the boys, the organist, and Pastor Valera. The daughter, the one who had arrived first, cried. Everyone else sat stony faced. They seemed relieved by the sermon which was about the ways that God tests us and often tests us most through death, and I heard the son thank Pastor Valera for finding something good in his mother’s life.
What an epitaph.
There was more laughter than I had ever heard at a funeral reception. The sheet cake and the coffee disappeared. The cookies and the finger sandwiches remained.
And within an hour, it was over.
Pastor Valera went to the graveside service, and I, my stomach churning, went back into that sanctuary. But I didn’t talk to God. I talked to Agnes.
She had been the one in charge of the difficult emotions. She had been my moral center, which hadn’t always worked. When our son married that little Jewish girl—well, let’s just say our moral center failed. But usually, Agnes knew what to do, and I didn’t.
So I asked her in that place where she had spent so much of her life what she would do, and I could almost see her, not as she had been when she died, all skinny and cancer-wasted, nor as she had been when she headed the Ladies Auxiliary, her frame matronly and round, but as she had been the night I met her, her dark hair swinging, her eyes sparkling.
George, she had said in that chiding flirtatious tone I had loved so much, you already know what to do. You always do.
And I guess I did.
Pastor Valera returned from the graveside service shortly after that, his hair windblown and the hem of his coat covered with bits of newly mown grass. The boys had cleaned up, and downstairs I could still hear the bang of dishes as the ladies were finishing their tasks.
“You still here, George?” he asked. He shook his head. “What a sad day. I don’t think anyone mourned. What kind of life have you lived if no one is sorry that you died?”
I couldn’t answer him. There were no words. I couldn’t ask him about my dilemma either. He was younger than my son. For all his training, this man had no more wisdom than I did.
“George?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
I clearly wasn’t. I glanced around the vestibule, and then said, “If I overheard something in that sanctuary, someone talking to the dead, is that considered sacred communication?”
“You mean like confession?” he asked.
“We’re not Catholic,” he said. “And even if we were…” He paused, frowned at me, and asked, “What did you overhear?”
So I told him. I told him all of it, right down to my suspicions. As I spoke, he led me into his office, and closed the door behind us. The office was neat this time, like it usually was, and it smelled vaguely of pipe smoke.
“She had a bad heart, George,” he said when I was through. “She had a heart attack, and died in the emergency room, screaming at the nurses.”
I hadn’t expected that. I started to leave, embarrassed. Then a thought hit me. I stopped, and said, “Heart attacks can be triggered.”
“Her granddaughter brought her into the emergency room.”
“Still,” I said.
He studied me for a moment. “Why?” he asked. “Why would her granddaughter do that? She wasn’t going to inherit. The money isn’t going to the family at all. Or the church. It’s going to some arts organization back east.”
There was some disappointment in his tone, some acknowledgment of a plan gone wrong. We had all thought a portion of Edith’s money would come to the church. She had said so often enough. But then I remembered the attempted firing, and wondered if she had changed her will after that.
I’m not sorry, Gram. I’d make you die all over again if I could. Such hatred. Such repressed violence. So very much emotion packed in those words.
And absolutely no one mourned.
I thought of standing on those stairs every Sunday, waiting for Edith to go to her pew, and wishing that she was gone, wishing that she would leave me alone once and for all, wishing that I would never ever see her again, and knowing I would do almost anything to prevent it.
“George?” Pastor Valera was looking at me.
I shrugged. “Guess in my old age, my imagination is acting up.”
“Maybe,” Pastor Valera said. “Maybe not.”
My gaze met his. He shrugged. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“You believe me?” I asked.
“I don’t disbelieve you,” he said. “Her granddaughter might have triggered the heart attack.”
“But that’s murder,” I whispered.
“Is it?” he asked. “Edith pushed everyone else to the limits of their tolerance. It sounds as if her granddaughter might have done the same with her.”
Then he went behind his desk, pushed the yellow legal pad to the center and said, “Have you ever thought, George, that Edith’s granddaughter might have been trying not to apologize?”
“Not to apologize?”
He nodded. “When Agnes died, remember what you said to me?”
I closed my eyes. That day was as clear as this morning. “I said, ‘I should have done—’”
“More,” he said, finishing for me. “They all say, ‘I should have done more.’ Maybe Edith’s granddaughter felt as if she should have, but didn’t want to. Maybe she had apologized one too many times in her life for something she didn’t do, and wasn’t going to apologize again.”
I opened my eyes. He looked like a young man. A wise young man. Jesus had died a wise young man.
“That’s a very Christian way to interpret it,” I said. “But if I’m right and you’re wrong—”
“It becomes a matter for God.”
His words hung between us. Finally, I asked, “You can live with that?”
He looked down, and pushed the pad. “I live with things like that every single day.”
I guess we all live with things like that. The granddaughter, if indeed she purposely provoked Edith’s heart attack, must live with her action until the day she dies. Edith lived with the consequences of each action, each sentence, each word.
Agnes lived with it too. James and I never discuss her, never mention her. He has not forgiven her for turning away from his wife, and he probably never will.
And me, I continue to step toward the abyss and watch as others cross over. I go to church every Sunday, I watch the mourners during the week, and I watch to see if they know something I do not, if they find comfort in it, if they find hope.
Some of them do.
I simply find more questions, questions I do not like. And they are not the obvious questions either, the ones that I asked Pastor Valera, or even the ones I brought to Agnes. No, they are the small questions, the ones that, in the end, may matter more than others.
No one cried at the big gaudy funeral either, not even the widow who dabbed at her dry eyes beneath a thin black veil. The tears all belonged to the second funeral of the week, the one for the little boy who hadn’t been raised in the church. Such wailing, such moaning, such sadness.
There was no sadness for Edith, except Pastor Valera’s sadness at the lack. What had she done to deserve an emotionless send-off? And had she known that was how her funeral would be?
Had Agnes known that James wouldn’t be able to say goodbye?
Do we ever know?
I ask and get no answers. I sit in funeral after funeral and think about the lives that have passed, the choices made, the actions not taken. I think about what lies ahead for me and wonder who’ll tend to my flowers, who’ll sit in these familiar pews, staring straight ahead.
It shouldn’t matter, but it does.
Naked we are born and naked we return, and what we leave is all we’ve ever had.
I keep thinking if the granddaughter caused Edith Kahill’s death, then that’s Edith Kahill’s legacy—her bequest to the following generations.
Just like the gaping silence between me and James is my bequest to mine.
I’m not going to change the bequest. Changing it feels like a betrayal of Agnes, something I’ll never be able to do.
But I worry about it, like I worry about all the other things I can’t change. And I wait for my time, hoping God’ll grant me an extra few moments on this green Earth to see the funeral someone plans for me.
I can almost imagine my ghostly self standing beside the pews, Agnes beside me. She’ll slip her arm through mine, and remind me in that gentle chiding voice I miss so much: Funerals are for the living, George.
And I’ll do my best to remember that most of the time, she was right.
A Matter for God
Copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Published by WMG Publishing
First published in Obsessions, edited by Mark Leslie, Stark Publishing, November 2020
Cover and Layout copyright © 2021 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © NewAfrica/Depositphotos