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Living treasure

Joel Belz’s funeral reveals what may be his most lasting legacy

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ANDY GIENAPP DOESN’T RECALL when he and his father-in-law Joel Belz first discussed the price of coffins. Joel had written more than once about outrageous funeral expenses. After his friend Manker Sherrod died in 1992, Joel was fed up. In a piece called “No More for the Undertaker,” he described the cynical siphoning of millions from grieving families as a scandal that dwarfed even the Bakker and Swaggart televangelist scams.

Thus, as time drew near to shed his earthly tent, Joel was determined to steer his own family clear of wily undertakers hawking solid bronze caskets. And that’s why he asked his son-in-law Andy to build him a simple wooden box.

“He communicated to me early on that his wish was that whatever container was used to return his body to the earth would be of simple construction, without large expense, and little fuss,” Andy wrote in a short essay about the project.

Andy vowed to honor Joel’s wish for economy and knew immediately that he wanted to build a casket that would embody Joel’s history. First, he visited Covenant College. Joel was a Covenant alumnus and later a board member and board chair. Andy got permission from the college to harvest oak and hickory trees on campus property. Then he worked with a friend to rough-mill the timber that would form the casket’s lids and box. Meanwhile, Covenant’s staff helped Andy’s wife Jenny—Joel’s eldest daughter—fabricate the casket’s lining from Covenant’s royal blue tartan. Andy also secured pine from Cono Christian School in Iowa and fashioned it into trim. Though the materials weren’t expensive, Andy admits he missed the mark on the “little fuss” part.

During construction, Joel and his wife Carol Esther visited Andy and Jenny in Georgia. The casket was complete but unstained. “In true Joel fashion, he was eager to see his own casket,” Andy reports. “And upon viewing it, then asked if he should get in and see if it fit.”

Jenny and Carol Esther were horrified, but Andy laughed. It was classic Joel.

Indeed, he was a planner. Not long after, as Joel’s time drew near, he lay in bed at his Asheville, N.C., home. Carol Esther and their sister-in-law Mary Anna sat with him, planning Joel’s actual funeral. Whom did he want to officiate? (His pastor.) What about flowers? (None, please.) Was he happy with the hymns he’d hand-picked? (Yes—but if only there weren’t so few.)

Joel wanted a straightforward service that focused on his Savior, not himself. Still, the planning stretched into the afternoon, and Joel began to fade. Fatigue, worsened by end-stage Parkinson’s, clouded his mind.

“What time is it?” he asked.

Carol Esther checked. “About 3 o’clock.”

Joel, now in a mild delirium, seemed suddenly concerned: “We need to get to the funeral,” he said.

He meant his own. He didn’t want to be late. It would have been very Joel to be early to his own funeral. He was always thinking ahead.

As it was, he arrived at Arden Presbyterian Church in Asheville on Feb. 10, precisely on time. Arden was chosen for its soaring two-tier sanctuary. The Belzes’ home church, Covenant Reformed, would have been too small to hold all the mourners. In fact, it would have been crowded had only the Belz family shown up.

At most funerals, organizers reserve two or three pews for family. At Joel’s, it was nearly a full wing of the church. After hundreds of people were seated, the family streamed down the center aisle in a long procession, some bent and gray, some in middle age, many in the prime of life. Wriggling infants, fidgety schoolchildren, teenagers self-conscious in their formal attire. They kept coming and coming, filling in one pew after another, well over a hundred family members in all. I later joked that it was as if a 13th tribe of Israel had somehow materialized in the American South.

Of all the ways Joel Belz touched this world, that family legacy is to me the most marvelous. It will almost certainly be the most lasting: A family that takes seriously God’s command to be fruitful. A family that shows up for its own. A family that, though imperfect, is brimming with saints. I have never seen anything like it—and can’t imagine I ever will again.

Editor’s note: As promised, here is a link to the WORLD’s 2024 staff music playlist.

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.


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