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By Jim Schutze
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It's no easy job to justify a death to hundreds of grieving people.
"So I say, good night, Granville, and we'll see you in the morning," he says, his voice rumbling through the hall, drowned by applause.
The sermon has lasted about an hour, and Beckwith and staff stand ready just outside the church doors to retrieve the family and guide them to the farewell event in front of the church.
Beckwith and team direct the family to leave the pews. The widow, Vakeisha, is smiling. Outside, the clouds have cleared. It is humid and hot. Beckwith opens the back door of the white hearse parked in front of St. John's. There is no body inside, as the wife has decided to have it cremated. Beckwith reaches in and pulls out a bunch of balloons.
He turns to the widow standing between him and the church. The rest of the church members have filed out of the pews and are standing in a semicircle around the family. Beckwith pulls a purple balloon from the knotted bunch and hands it to the widow.
Pastor Davis stands beside her, a grimace on his face. Holding the widow's hand is the young daughter in a pale blue dress with her thumb in her mouth and a bow tied to each braid. The mother asks her daughter what color balloon she would like. She points to a gold one. Beckwith pulls one out and gives it to her.
Davis chooses a red balloon. The frown between his eyebrows remains.
"I will now ask that if there is any other family member who wants to step forward to release a balloon with the family to do so now," Beckwith says. He distributes more balloons, pulling out one from the bunch at a time. Tiny, brief smiles flash on the faces of the crowd.
Davis steps forward and reminds everybody that God giveth before he taketh away. People nod. He announces that, case in point, Vakeisha is pregnant. God may take away, but he gives back first an even greater gift.
Davis explains he will count to three and then everybody will release the balloons. "And we release him now into the loving hands of our God. One, two, three."
"Be at rest," everybody says at once, and the balloons take off.
The balloons still visible in the distance, Beckwith asks Vakeisha if she is satisfied with the service. She is. He gets back into his car. First, he removes the undertaker jacket and lays it carefully on the back seat. He'll put it on again in 15 minutes for his next appointment, to begin arranging services for another family from the community.