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Toward Wholeness Blog

Lessons from an Alpine Funeral


I was grateful, after the death of my friend Hans Peter Royer, that my daughter was able to attend his funeral in Austria.  Her guest post today invites all of us to heed, through the lessons of death, the call to faithfulness in life.  You can find all her writing here

…What we owe the future   

is not a new start, for we can only begin   

with what has happened. We owe the future   

the past, the long knowledge

that is the potency of time to come.

That makes of a man’s grave a rich furrow.

The community of knowing in common is the seed   

of our life in this place. There is not only  

no better possibility, there is no

other, except for chaos and darkness,   

the terrible ground of the only possibly

new start. And so as the old die and the young   

depart, where shall a man go who keeps   

the memories of the dead, except home   

again, as one would go back after a burial,   

faithful to the fields, lest the dead die   

a second and more final death. 

Wendell Berry, from “At A Country Funeral” (43-57)

“The kitchen is the soul of the house,” one of my roommates sighed, walking through two friends’ apartment recently. “Everything happens in the kitchen.”

This is nowhere more true than at Schiestl Hof, a four-cow dairy farm in Central Austria where I’m sitting at the kitchen table, wearing unfamiliar black dress and heels, waiting to go to a funeral. The night train took me through moonlit Switzerland and Austria’s long western tail, bringing me here just as the sun rose, only a few hours before Hans Peter Royer’s 10:00 AM memorial service. The inhabitants of the farmhouse have been up for five hours, milking the cows, picking me up from the train station and preparing breakfast for their guests and for us.

The kitchen is the only private gathering place on the 300 year old farm. Since the rest of the house consists of guest rooms for sleeping and dining, the family–a mother, Irmgard, and her adult daughter, Annemarie–spends many working hours and all social time in this little kitchen. I’ve spent ages here myself during the summer when I lived on this farm between two challenging years of teaching in Seattle, soaking up the rhythms of work, hospitality and weather that are inherent to this way of life.

I pull out Wendell Berry’s poetry collection, In the Country of Marriage, to read while I wait, opening it to a poem whose title, “At a Country Funeral” had drawn me last night. Berry describes the burial of a farmer, the first half of the poem dwelling on the pause it makes for each of his peers to stand at his grave and reflect on their own impermanence. The poem shifts in its second half, from lamenting the loss of the farmer to the loss of his farm, this abandoned place where “the field goes wild / and the house sits and stares” (29-30). He finishes with an exhortation to the living, to return to work to be “faithful to the fields, lest the dead die, / a second and more final death” (56-7). It’s not the kind of funeral I’m going to, I think to myself, taking an uncharacteristically literal view of the poem. Hans Peter lived in the country, yes, but he wasn’t a farmer. There are no fields to be faithful to, no farm to tend in his absence.

As I’d expected, our “country funeral” seems to bear little comparison to the one in the poem. The tiny cemetery in tiny Ramsau–full of ancestral graves now centuries old–is already full of people when we arrive, joining the throng clad in black and Steirische green. It’s clear that this multitude, later counted at over nine hundred, represents the many generations, nations, even continents that Hans Peter influenced.

There are the Ramsauer neighbors, like the women with whom I’m staying, locals who gathered to bid the boy from their mountains farewell. There are his fellow Bergführer–mountain guides–in their telltale red jackets, men who climbed these peaks with him for years, only to find him there in the end. There are the Americans who flew here in haste, arriving just in time to pay their respects to a man from whom they’d learned so much. There are Germans who grew up in their faith listening to Hans Peter, in person or in print, preaching Christ with unadorned sincerity. There are the staff of Tauernhof, people who have served with him for months, years and decades, learning not only from his teaching but from his friendship and leadership. Every face and every tear tells a story of how God used this man to serve, teach and love others.

The service is long, rich and deep, combining the celebration of Hans Peter’s life with a reminder, much needed, that for us who know Jesus “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” It’s only later, as we stand back in the sunny cemetery and wait to lay flowers on his grave, that my mind wanders back to the poem, to the exhortation to the young to preserve the knowledge of the dead, to be “faithful to the fields.”

Hans Peter had fields, too. Here is Tauernhof, the school he worked so hard to build up. Here are these mountains he loved to share. Here we are in this community he lived in for his whole life, ever a part of it even as he traveled far abroad teaching Christ. He is gone now, but his fields are still here.

And while I linger in metaphor, in reality we return home from the burial, just as Wendell Berry wrote, back to work. There are cows to milk and rooms to clean, guests to greet and cakes to bake. In the midst of it, for two days I’m privileged to help when I can, and mostly sit in the presence of a community in mourning. Neighbors come by and are offered coffee and conversation, discourse that inevitably turns back to Hans Peter and, at the ladies’ urging, to Christ. They’re tending the fields, I think to myself, hearing the daughter Annemarie say yet again that while we don’t know why, God knows, and we can rest in that knowledge.

“Where shall a man go who keeps the memories of the dead, except home again, as after a burial,” writes Berry (53-5). It’s a question without a question mark, not a question at all. There’s nowhere to go but where we’re each called, back home again. We pause, to celebrate and honor and reflect, but then we return to the places God has given us, to love and give in the way for which God has best equipped us. For Annemarie and Irmgard, at Schiestl Hof, this is hospitality and stewardship, literal fields to keep alive. For me, it is the 280 students who are preparing to fill our classrooms in a week, young minds and hearts that long to know Jesus and serve Him well.

In this sense Berry’s metaphor is incomplete; we don’t have our own fields, to buy and to sell and to pass on when we’re gone. Hans Peter, Irmgard, Annemarie, my father–who preached a beautiful sermon on faith not 24 hours after hearing of his dear friend’s death–it’s all the same field. We are all, each of us, tilling God’s field, a kingdom which will outlast us each in ways more complex and beautiful than we can ever imagine.

And so I return to Germany, on trains making their lazy way through the green and grey of Bayern and Baden-Wurttemburg. I keep this memory of a dear and favorite teacher close as I return to home and to work, seeking to be faithful to this field we’ve shared.

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