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At my father's humble grave, I saw the courageous seasons of his life

Originally published through Church of the Holy Communion's Sacred Presence Blog


We buried my dad last Monday. His four children, grandchildren and those they love woke early on Memorial Day, crowded into two cars and drove to Stuttgart, Ark.

In one car, the occupants faithfully played the “Alphabet Game,” watching for each letter on some car or sign. In the other car, we traveled with Dad’s remains in a cube-shaped brass urn with his name, John Burnett, taped on it. Next to his name was a series of numbers representing his dying wish to have his body donated to science so doctors could learn and practice their skills at Medical Education Research Institute in Midtown Memphis.

Dad died Jan. 1, 2014. We had a memorial service that week, but his remains were returned to us about the same time our son, Adam, was diagnosed with cancer. This was the first time since Adam's treatment ended that we were all together and could plan Dad’s burial. The week before, I’d attended a memorial service led by the Rev. Ben Badgett for Dr. Bonita Lyons, a member of Holy Communion and beloved, especially in the Memphis educational community.

During her service, many people shared memories of how “Doc,” also known as “B,” had touched their lives. Many were former students that needed extra encouragement to find their way through life. It was clear that Doc was a constant in their lives, still texting words of encouragement until hours before her death.

My dad was not a constant in my life very often, although I believe he wanted to be. He would try, but as he said, he “didn’t get it until he was 70.” One day he told me he hoped I would “get it” before then. I’ve always wondered what he really meant. He lived to be 85, so I had plenty of time to ask, but he seemed unable to put it into words, so I just observed.

As I wrote in an earlier blog (, throughout my Lenten journey, I considered my role in various areas of my life. I’d planned to spend the 50 days of Easter learning more about what it means to live like Easter people, perhaps more fully awake to life, more often in the awe of the empty tomb and more able to grasp what it really means to be forgiven.

Until the past two weeks, I hadn’t had much success. Then these two funerals happened and woke me up. B’s death was sudden. My dad’s burial was last-minute. B and Dad lived very different lives. B spent her whole live committed to serving others and listening for God in every moment. My dad fought against God’s love and commandments every chance he could for much of his life.

Both died having changed people’s lives forever. What B brought to the world was passion and forgiveness. My Dad did, too.

B offered it to others and willingly accepted it for herself. My Dad found it at just the right time in a little Baptist church in Mississippi when he told his minister about his transgressions. He was 70.

When students were sent to B’s office at the University of Memphis for not the best of reasons, she loved them like Jesus did Thomas. Many of them were in their doubting days just like he was. B asked them what they were going to do to aim their life back toward their goals.

The preacher asked my dad how he was going to do that, too. Dad began to show up for people just like B had been doing. He ministered to the ones making poor life choices, told them what it had cost in his own life and prayed for them every day. He sat with people as they died to help them keep their eyes on the prize of everlasting life. He showed up for every family function and told us over and over how proud he was of each of us. Mostly he said, “Do you know how much I love you?” 

When we got to the cemetery Monday, there was a narrow but deep hole dug between the graves of his parents, my grandparents. We lifted Dad’s urn out of an orange, canvas Adam’s Army bag and placed both next to the hole that was his final resting place. We gathered in a circle around the graves of our ancestors and played a recording of Elvis's “How Great Thou Art.”

That was Dad’s favorite song to sing. We had no preacher with us, so we improvised. I read from the Burial chapters in our Book of Common Prayer. Adam was in charge of music and surprised us all with One Republic’s song “I Lived” as our heart-made ceremony ended.

We felt such joy and peace there in the Lone Tree Cemetery that morning. It took many years of healing in our family to get to that day feeling that way, but we did. We stayed to watch the undertaker gently lower the urn and cover that little grave. As we began to wander deeper into the cemetery to visit other graves, I noticed Adam walk back to his Papaw's grave, so I followed.

I watched as Adam leaned down to place something on it. He had found an old, faded, silky purple butterfly from a long-gone flower arrangement. Looking down at the most perfect grave marker we will ever find for Dad, I realized what he’d never found words to explain, “I hope you aren’t 70 before you get it.”

Dad had showed me through his own challenging story that life is a series of metamorphoses. Just about the time we figure out how to fly with new wings after some significant life moment, another opportunity occurs to cocoon, surrender to faith and trust that the new wings will carry you through the next phase. Dad had learned at 70 to fully surrender and spent the next 15 years showing others it’s never too late to “get it.”

Dr. Bonita Lyons and my dad lived, learned and taught others through the way they lived their faith. Though their life paths were very different, they both ended up in the same place. As Pentecost boldly arrives, dressed in fiery red, I believe more than ever the words from the book of Acts, “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”

May we believe this with the faith of the caterpillar, willing to become what God calls us to be in this world.

p.s. Here’s the song, “I Lived.” Adam couldn’t have picked a better one for his Papaw’s burial:


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