ERIC BERGESON: The Country Scribe — A Slam-Dunk Funeral

When my Grandmother Olga Bergeson passed away in 1995, her funeral was held on a perfect September day at the little country church where she had been comfirmed nearly 80 years before.

Paul Ofstedal.
Paul Ofstedal.

After the graveside service, neighbor Paul Ofstedal pulled my aunt aside and said, “Now, that was a slam-dunk funeral.”

Yesterday came Paul’s turn for a slam-dunk funeral.

Paul was a citizen of Rindal, Minn., a neighborhood centered on the tiny town by that name. Faaberg Lutheran church remains active, but the Rindal’s general store closed in the 1980s and the creamery closed soon thereafter. The town of perhaps a dozen inhabitants survives as a sleepy shadow of its former self.

Until a funeral.

Then, Rindal’s only street fills with cars and the tightly knit Rindal bunch, those raised when the town and its surrounding small farms brimmed with children and chickens and cows, gather from near and far to send off one of their own. They come from neighboring towns, from Fargo, from the Twin Cities, from California, from wherever — but they share a lasting tie: memories of a youth spent in idyllic Rindal.

The rare chance to get together with the old neighbors turns most Rindal funerals into festive reunions. You would never suspect the area was populated with sullen Norwegians — just as you would never suspect you were at a funeral — when you open the door to the narthex of Faaberg to be overwhelmed by loud conversation and big laughs.

Although he would give the spectacle his full endorsement, Paul would have been on the edge of the crowd, hands in pockets, mumbling a carefully constructed statement into a listener’s ear in his muffled bass voice.

Paul was a farmer-philosopher. There are more of them in Rindal than you might imagine. A voracious reader and a brooding thinker, when Paul saw you about town, he usually had a thought ready just for you, and you got the impression that he had been polishing that thought since he saw you months before.

Sometimes, I responded to Paul’s thought. He would lean in to absorb my half-baked instant analysis, eyes squeezed shut, wrinkled face scrunched, deep in thought. And then he would walk away, as if to say he needed another month or two to digest the new information.

After he retired from farming, Paul surprised everybody by getting a job as a physical therapy aide at Fair Meadow Nursing home in Fertile, Minn. It was a surprise at first, but about a second after absorbing the news, most people who knew Paul said, “that’s perfect!” And it was. Paul drew out those he served, hearing stories from the old-timers I suspect nobody ever heard before. His tenure at Fair Meadow was more a ministry than a job.

So, even though Paul retired from Fair Meadow job 10 years ago, several of Faaberg’s pews filled with his co-workers.

Faaberg Lutheran Church is a thing of beauty. It’s spire can be seen for miles. The interior, recently given a new coat of paint, is just as it was and has been for decades. The 110-year-old organ’s pipes, ornately painted, glow in the sunlight. The newly polished wood floor doesn’t even squeak, as most country church’s floors do. Faaberg is solid.

Good singing, a moving flag ceremony by two uniformed soldiers honoring Paul’s time as a Marine in Vietnam, taps, a great solo by Paul’s brother — the funeral was dignified, but warm.

And then, “lunch” downstairs, prepared by the ladies in Faaberg’s spacious kitchen. Open-faced cheese sandwiches, cold noodle dishes, marshmallow salads, pickles, coffee — the traditional Lutheran fare. And more loud conversation among old neighbors happy to have an excuse to get together, even if it is a funeral.

An outside visitor from the suburbs might find the cacophany disconcerting. Where’s the grief? Where’s the solemnity? The answer is that the grief is underlying and ongoing and there was more than enough solemnity in the service. When the people are gathered, it is time to reacquaint and catch up on new hips and new knees and grandkids and trips. The unspoken assumption is that Paul would be happy he at least provided a chance for the neighborhood’s offspring to renew old ties.

That’s what makes for a slam-dunk funeral.

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