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    Auction Finds

    Tossing a loved one’s Bible

    I was going through some auction items of a black soldier last weekend with some friends, and we came across the man’s small Bible. It had been given to him by the U.S. Army when he was a private during World War II.

    It was in remarkably good condition, its brown leather cover a little darkened by age and handling, a slight fraying at the left edge. Inside, he had neatly written in ink his name and address, and the names of his wife and son. The Bible was the New Testament, Roman Catholic Version and offered prescribed daily readings for this new soldier and other privates.

    I was a bit surprised to see the man’s military papers, photos and even his voter registration card among this ephemera. I don’t often find such documents from black families. But I was especially surprised to see the Bible – so intimate an item – among the “stuff” in this box lot I had bought at auction.  

    I’m not a very religious person – I’m count myself more as spiritual – but I always think of Bibles and other personal religious items as sacred. The type of memento that a family member – a son or a daughter – would want to keep as a reminder of their loved one. Not something tossed into a box lot.

    Why do family members give away something so personal?

    We are a people consumed by religion, but aren’t sure yet how to live and die with it. We fill churches on Sunday and prayer meetings during the week. We buy Bibles by the millions – it’s one of the best-selling books each year – and build new churches the size of convention centers. We argue about religion and we fight over it. We use it to enslave a whole race of people and brand another based on the fanatical actions of a few.

    Yet, we treat a loved one’s Bible as a discard. The serviceman’s Bible was not the first I’ve seen. At one auction a few weeks ago, a thick family Bible with names, birthdays and marriages of descendants from way back sat on a table against a back wall. It must have weighed a ton and had enough recorded history to make any genealogist very  happy.  Some buyer knew its worth: Even before the auctioneer got around to it, someone had already left a bid. It’s the type of memorabilia that auction-buyers readily snap up.

    A couple months ago, I found a Bible in another box lot. This one had gilded edges, and an inscription on an inside page: “Presented to Edw T. Byles by Officers & Teachers of Logan Baptist Church School. May 19, 1935.” It had been signed by the Sunday School superintendent, teacher and pastor. It’s a nice Bible, the pages are still intact (with color plates of pictures), but the edges of the cover are frayed and peeling.

    Crucifixes are just as common, likely because they can be easily dropped into a box for auction or charity. I have several small ones, two made in France, ready to be worn on a chain. Crucifixes are dear to many of us. In Italy, they are beyond sacred. I was in the country some years ago and brought back a crucifix blessed by holy water for a friend. And I was reading recently of a controversy in the country over the removal of crucifixes from Italian classrooms. A no-no in a country where the Pope lives.

    Instead of tossing these items, we could just bury them with the dead. The soldier apparently loved his Bible or he wouldn’t have written the names in them for posterity. Why not bury the Bible with him? If you’ve ever been to a King Tut exhibit, you know that his burial tomb contained the finest that his world had to offer – “grave goods,” as they are apparently called.

    I attended a storytelling class last week where a group of women were learning how to tell stories. Not big fables, just bits and pieces of their experiences. One woman told of a ritual that her family started when her mother died. Each family member tied a white ribbon around his or her wrist from the time Mom died until the day of the funeral. At the service, each adult child placed the ribbon in the casket, followed by their own children. “A piece of you is in the ribbon,” the storyteller said.

    I thought it was a powerful farewell message to the departed. A much better way for the family to honor them than tossing their precious momento in a box lot for a stranger to take home.  

    Be sure to read Soul Rhythms, where writer Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb blogs about faith and spirituality.

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