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Near the top of the hill, I spot people of all ages gathering around chairs under a small canopy. Thousands of flat grave markers, not the rising monuments of yesteryear, cover the surrounding slopes. Scattered among them are a few here and there that have bunches of flowers and personal items on them. The day is bright with sunshine, and the people gathering appear cheerful with each other in a subdued sort of way.

Only a few people wear formal dress. But a middle-aged woman in a blue suit looks inviting, and I ask her if I might stand in the back of their group and listen once the service starts. I say that I may have to plan something like this for another person someday. "Sit or stand anywhere you like," she says. "It might seem a little unusual to you, as the minister of my brother's church is officiating. Are you a Christian?"

To wait, I wander 30 yards away, not far from a cemetery groundskeeper noisily operating a backhoe. He seems to be loosening up the grass and topsoil over a new gravesite.

Several days later, it occurs to me to inquire into the cost of plots. I call a woman at Greenwood Cemetery for a sample price. Thirty-five hundred dollars buys the plot. The cemetery then charges $900 to dig and close it and $800 for the concrete vault required by law to seal the coffin in the grave. There is a $95 fee for processing paperwork. A 28- by 16-inch headstone costs $625, and its installation, including engraving, is $350. Taxes on the taxable items are $110.44. The total, the woman at Greenwood says, is $6380.44. That does not include the cost of a casket or of the funeral service.

When the backhoe operator pauses and looks from his machine perch toward the gathering mourners, I ask when he plans to stop his work. "I usually drive away about ten minutes before the services start," he says -- and he does.

A young man drives up the road in front of the mourners, stops, and backs up against the curb, screeching his tires in the process. He jumps out and joins the gatherers. A silver hearse with a black top pulls up shortly thereafter and delivers its passenger. The sounds of soft music now tell me the service is about to begin, and I move to the back of the crowd of about 80 people. We are at the crest of a hill looking over a picturesque canyon, the flower-covered casket in our immediate foreground.

Standing now next to the coffin, the minister prays and reads from a Bible. But his role seems to be mainly to introduce testimonials, which start with friends of the deceased, who had five grown children and scores of grandchildren and was 79 at the time of her death. A middle-aged woman steps forward. Her husband died several years earlier. She explains how much comfort she then received from the deceased. "The lady we are honoring here today could relate because of how much sorrow she endured at the death of her own husband," says the woman.

A second woman stands and speaks of the "dysfunctional family" she lived in as a child. She says that the deceased taught her the real meaning of family. Another person gets up to talk about his own dysfunctional family. It is the young man who screeched his tires shortly before the service began. He recounts how the deceased invited him into her home and showed him, too, what "family" means.

At last, family members begin speaking. After stepping forward, the older of the deceased's two sons points back of himself to the casket and says that his mother "is here, but she's not here. She wouldn't dance in life, but she is dancing now." He has written for today's occasion a song called "Working My Way Back to You, Lord." He and a friend take guitars over to a microphone at the gathering's left side and play the song. The mourners listen with reverence to its soft tones and message of hope.

Now the oldest of three daughters stands. She is the woman who welcomed me before the service started. "It seems like Mom invited the whole U.S. Navy into our house," she says, to chuckles in the little congregation. "My sister and I thought they were our brothers. That's why we married Marines instead."

"I'm the baby of the family," says the last family member to stand, a trim man of 40 with sandy hair. "Mom believed in the power of prayer and the scripture. She taught us the importance of spiritual things. I remember that Mom would pray for my brother and me, especially at night. She would come into our rooms when we were sleeping and lay hands on us and pray over us. I remember pretending to be asleep so I could hear those prayers. I miss those prayers.

"She made going to church a priority. You couldn't miss even if you were sick. She said, 'You better not be breathing if you're planning on not going to church.' " There is subdued, poignant laughter among the mourners.

"She had lots of her own favorite sayings, like 'Oh, hogwash' or 'Fiddlesticks' or 'Don't put your cart before your horses.' After her stroke, she had to learn to talk again. She kept saying 'beautiful' to everything you said to her. You'd announce, 'It's bedtime.' She'd say, 'Beautiful.'

" 'Be sure your sins don't catch you out' was something she told me a lot when I was growing up. For the longest time, I thought it was a scripture. I can't find it, but I think it is in there somewhere.

"She loved dominoes and Scrabble. She'd come up with words I'd never heard of. Then, sure enough, they'd be in the dictionary.

"She loved gospel music. She'd listen for hours and hours and rewind the tape and play it again, songs like 'The Old Rugged Cross' and 'The Power of Love.'

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