Southern churches are built for sound. The choir sits on risers behind the pulpit. Above them, the organ pipes are pitched for perfect harmony. Camouflaged microphones have been placed so no note, prayer, or word is lost. As we shuffle in, we’re enveloped by the rustling of paper. It sounds from strategically placed speakers, hung at intervals, ensuring the congregation includes even the furthest pew, and the most muted mumble carries past the oak doors and out into the street.
No whisper goes unheard. Not the apologetic late arrival nor the chattering of children, their Mary Janes clacking against the pews in synchronicity as they swing-clack, swing-clack their legs with restless anticipation. We fidget in creaks. We remove and replace hymnals in scrapes and thunks. We stumble down pews with muttered condolences.
When the officers file in, their boots sound like kettle drums, low, slow, purposeful. A parade of full belts against dark blue. Bright, white, stripes on shoulder after shoulder march past the seated congregation. Bright, white, braids signify the honor guard. They turn to take their places in the front two rows across the aisle from where the family slumps in stunned stillness. The collective clatter of a dozen police officers sitting and shifting their weight signals the time to start.
Southern churches are built for sound. When the service begins those engineered acoustics raise every voice. The vibrato of a tenor, his solo prayer lifted in song, hangs in the air like fog before falling on us, through us, changing the vibration of our collective molecules. A preacher’s heartfelt words, a series of unexpected eulogies, the stories of surprised grief and confounded sorrow are carried clear as day, crisp and unavoidable, into every ear.
When all the words are spent and the last notes fade from our final hymn, five officers rise and turn with clockwork precision toward the dais. There, a folded flag awaits its role. One officer lifts it gently. Another untucks the end, then backsteps like a dancer, unfolding the flag to its full length. They continue unfolding the long creases until the full view of the Stars and Stripes can be seen by all. Some pause to consider the implication. Others understand its relevance by rote.
After the collective has had time to contemplate the field of blue, the slashes of red, the officers reverse with the same slow precision. Others in the honor guard step in to keep the fabric taunt, the folds uniform.
The air conditioner hums. The congregation holds its breath. The quiet envelopes us as the flag is transformed back into a triangle and handed up the chain of command to the Chief. Through it all, a solitary voice pierces our shroud of silence – the shaking, snuffling, sobs of an only child.
Southern churches are built for sound. She sits in the front row closest to the center aisle, inches from the pageantry, with every microphone directed at her grief. The magnitude of our insufficiency lies heavy on the congregation as her sorrow rains down from the pitched dome, soaking into our bones, inflaming our guilt.
The flag is handed to her with solemn ceremony. She draws some strength at its touch. She inhales a stuttering breath and calms. The officers return to the front row to stand sentry. No one moves. Stilled and quieted by loss.
Southern churches are built for sound. The electrostatic of a radio clicks on. A high, plaintiff, whine followed by silence. Once more, the crackling, clarion, wail cuts through us. Then, a voice speaks.
“Badge 356. Badge 356.”
“356. Officer Smith. This is the final call for Officer John Michael Smith.”
“Officer John Michael Smith. End of Watch. Thursday, January 7. Thank you for your service. You can rest in peace. We’ll take it from here.”
Southern churches are built for sound. The call reverberates in every corner. It is heard in the furthest pew. It carries out onto the street with relentless resonance.