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Published: Tuesday, 2/27/2007

Solemn rite carries a servant to his rest

We deal with our dead in manageable doses of ritual and custom, costume and metaphor - we get them to oblivions of our own choosing: the grave or tomb, fire or sea. It is the transport all funerals must accomplish - getting both the dead and the living to the edge of a new reality, a world changed awfully and still, just as awfully, where life goes on.

- Author and Michigan

undertaker Thomas Lynch

•

Drive north, not far from the city of Toledo, and there it is: The fields, the spacious widening between houses, the occasional horse stable, reminders all that you may now take a slow, deep breath.

From this bucolic patch of Michigan came undercover TPD Detective Keith Dressel. And to here - after his shooting death in a tough Toledo neighborhood in the middle of the night - his body was returned.

He did not come back alone.

The procession of mourners on these two-lane roads (such a short distance between the modest Catholic church where his funeral Mass was held to the country cemetery where he was laid to rest) snaked along for miles, a dolorous column.

Detective Dressel's was as solemn a funeral as is imaginable. Hymns and flags and bagpipes and heartbeat-steady drums and liturgy.

The body of Detective Keith Dressel lies in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, surrounded by his family and members of the community he came from and the one he chose to serve. The body of Detective Keith Dressel lies in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, surrounded by his family and members of the community he came from and the one he chose to serve.
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Liturgy.

We humans have buried our dead with ceremony and ritual for tens of thousands of years. Archaeologists have long given us accounts of the painstakingly crafted jewelry, the stone tools, the red ocher which those who came long before us used to send off their dead.

Maybe 70 or so miles north of Bedford Township, in another small Michigan town called Milford, Thomas Lynch continues the mortician's trade his father took up in 1948. But in addition, he is a highly regarded poet and essayist who's not too afraid of death to write about it.

On Sunday I drove through the pewtery, late-afternoon gloom to see St. Anthony's Cemetery. Afterwards, when I got home, I reached once again for Mr. Lynch's essays and was not disappointed.

February, he wrote, is the month he himself would prefer to be buried: "I want it cold. I want the gray to inhabit the air like wood does trees: as an essence, not a coincidence." At the cemetery, Mr. Lynch directed, "I want a mess made in the snow so that the Earth looks wounded, forced open, an unwilling participant."

Sunday afternoon, a screaming-yellow John Deere excavator waited near the fence at the cemetery's far eastern edge, its long claw ready to paw the ground till it gaped.

As the day disappeared into dusk some 20 hours before a funeral would draw thousands here, there was little else at St. Anthony's Cemetery but peace and quiet and two men working.

Kevin Nusbaum was behind the wheel of his green pickup, shoveling ice-crusted snow from the cemetery's lone entrance. Earlier, he'd begun making a hole in the ground for Detective Dressel's grave.

"We busted eighteen inches of frost," said Mr. Nusbaum, nodding toward his helper, John Portala. "We just started it, though. We won't finish until morning."

They are distant relations, the detective and Mr. Nusbaum, who said he didn't often see his "shirttail cousin."

Here in the older section at the front of the cemetery, the gravedigger said, lie many from both the Nusbaum side of the family (the funeral's presiding priest, Father Daniel Nusbaum, is another of the detective's cousins) as well as the Dressel branch.

Standing on the driveway, Mr. Nusbaum kicked away a veneer of glazed snow from a simple, flat grave marker just inches from the pavement.

This marked the final resting place of Nicholas Nusbaum (1823-1915), an ancestor he said he shared with the detective.

For the better part of last week - through accumulation of snow and ice and sorrow - Mr. Nusbaum went through 600 pounds of rock salt just to keep the narrow cemetery driveway passable.

As the truck carefully plowed away the slush, its driver leaned his head out the window, the better to hear Mr. Portala guide him along the one-car lane.

"That's old-style," he explained. "horse-and-carriage style, back from when this [cemetery] started."

There was much to keep Mr. Portala watchful; Nicholas Nusbaum's is only one of many headstones just inches from the driveway, inches from the plow's edge.

Mr. Nusbaum, 41, said he's been the full-time caretaker and gravedigger for this church cemetery since the death of the last man to do so.

"That was my Uncle Bernie. I was helping him out for three or four years before [he died]."

Although he uses equipment from his excavating company now, he said he could remember the last man who dug graves in St. Anthony's with a shovel: That would have been his Uncle Arnold.

No, Keith Dressel's is not the first family grave Mr. Nusbaum has dug.

He keeps a cemetery blueprint at his house, so he can locate the plots when the time comes to dig them.

"I consider it a privilege," he said. "I always did. My [11-year-old] son, he's thinking he might carry on the tradition."

This must be the deep-rooted sense of both family and place that Father Nusbaum referred to during the funeral, explaining how Detective Dressel's "profound faith" was "nurtured generation after generation in what used to be open farmland here in Bedford Township."

For his homily, the priest chose an unusual reading from Matthew Chapter 8, about a centurion soldier who takes a risk to help another.

"Who is this centurion? He is, of course, a man of order. That's his job. He is a policeman of his day, a man who came in to keep order in a place that was full of disorder," said Father Nusbaum.

And he continued.

"He was not only a man of order, he was also a man of authority - but authority that was exercised in such a gentle way that it was clearly an authority that cared for those underneath him."

Later, the priest would remind the thousands of people who came to mourn the murdered cop of two of Christianity's principal tenets.

"The Lord says, 'Love.' But he also says forgive. Forgive everyone everything."

So simple, Christ's most basic teachings, that they're hard. And surely harder at some times than others.

"Love," commanded the priest. "Forgive. Judge not. And in the end, the Lord says everything you have was given to you by God. Therefore, share it."

•

The meaning of our lives, and the memories of them, belong to the living, just as our funerals do. Whatever being the dead have now, they have by the living's faith alone.

- Thomas Lynch



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