THE HOT AIR HUNG THICKLY IN THE SMALL cemetery chapel. Those who had fans used them to stir the stillness. It was crowded. The few chairs that had been set out were quickly taken. I found an empty corner off to one side and stood quietly, observing my first Brazilian funeral.
On a stand in the midst of the chapel rested the coffin and body of a woman who had been killed the day before in a car accident. Her name was Dona Neusa. I knew her because she was the mother of one of our first converts, Cesar Coutinho. Beside the casket stood Cesar, his sister, other relatives, and someone very special by the name of Carmelita.
She was a tall woman with dark, almost black skin. On this day her dress was simple and her face solemn. She stared earnestly at the casket with deep-set brown eyes. There was something noble about the way she stood beside the body. She didn’t weep openly as did the rest. Nor did she seek comfort from the other mourners. She just stood there, curiously quiet.
The night before, I had accompanied Cesar on the delicate task of telling Carmelita that Dona Neusa had been killed. As we drove, he explained to me how Carmelita had been adopted into their family.
Over twenty years earlier, Cesar’s family had visited a small town in the interior of Brazil. There they encountered Carmelita, a seven-year-old orphan living with poverty-stricken relatives. Her mother had been a prostitute. She never knew her father. Upon seeing the child, Dona Neusa was touched. She knew that unless someone intervened, little Carmelita was doomed to a life with no love or attention. Because of Dona Neusa’s compassion, Cesar and his family returned home with a new family member.
As I stood in the funeral chapel and looked at Carmelita’s face, I tried to imagine the emotions she was feeling. How her life had changed. I wondered if her mind was reliving that childhood memory of climbing into a car and driving away with a strange family. One moment she had been without love, a home, or a future; the next moment she had all three.
My thoughts were interrupted by the noise of shuffling feet. The funeral was over and people were leaving the chapel for the burial. Because of my position in the extreme corner of the building, I was the last to leave. Or at least so I thought. As I was walking out I heard a soft voice behind me. I turned and saw Carmelita weeping silently at the side of the coffin. Moved, I stood in the chapel doorway and witnessed this touching adieu. Carmelita was alone for the last time with her adopted mother. There was an earnestness in her eyes. It was as if she had one final task to perform. She didn’t wail, nor did she scream with grief. She simply leaned over the casket and caressed it tenderly as if it were the face of her mother. With silent teardrops splashing on the polished wood she said repeatedly, “Obrigada, obrigada” (“Thank you, thank you”).
A final farewell of gratitude.
Driving home that day, I thought how we, in many ways, are like Carmelita. We too were frightened orphans. We too were without tenderness or acceptance. And we too were rescued by a compassionate visitor, a generous parent who offered us a home and a name.
Our response should be exactly that of Carmelita, a stirring response of heartfelt gratitude for our deliverance. When no one else would even give us the time of day the Son of God gave us the time of our life!
We, too, should stand in the quiet company of him who saved us, and weep tears of gratitude and offer words of thankfulness. For it is not our bodies that have been rescued, but our souls.