Why do some stories stick in our mind? Over a decade ago, a bagpiper I met at a wedding told me this tale, which I’ll re-tell in his voice: “I play at gatherings as varied as parades and resorts at sunset. Last winter a kind friend of mine who is a funeral director, asked me to play at a graveside service for a homeless man he used to smile at each day on the way to work. He could not find any family members or friends to attend. A mutual friend of ours, a minister, had kindly agreed to provide a simple service for the man at a pauper’s cemetery in rural Kentucky.
I agreed to play yet I was not familiar with the backwoods. Driving out to the service I got lost and harried, looking for signs. I finally arrived an hour late. The minister had already left it.
Only the backhoe driver and the gravediggers remained. They were quietly eating lunch. I felt badly and apologized to them for my tardiness. Yet I was resolved to honor this man in his death, thinking of the many forgotten people like him who had no one to acknowledge their life at the end.
I got out my bagpipes, walked to the side of the fresh grave and looked down. The vault lid was already in place. I paused, looked up at the sky, then held up my bagpipes and began to play.
After a few minutes of playing I glanced over and noticed that the workers had put down their lunches and were listening. Suddenly I felt the numinosity of this moment, a connection with this man and all those who are alone in their passing, so I played with all my heart.
Two songs later I started Amazing Grace, letting myself scan the countryside. That’s when I saw the diggers were quietly weeping. Soon, so was I. When I finished, I quietly packed up my bagpipes and started walking back to my car, feeling much more at peace with the world.
As I opened my car door I heard one of the workers exclaim, “Sweet Mother of Jesus, I never felt nothin’ like that before and I’ve been digging graves for twenty-two years.”
Lesson: Telling a story with an unexpected twist (and we have all experienced them) may stick in others’ minds so much that they can’t help sharing it with others.