CEDAR RAPIDS — Rev. William Harnish has presided over about 4,000 funerals in Cedar Rapids since the early 1960s, averaging a couple a week before he retired in 2015.
The 85-year-old has kept the programs of more than 3,000 of those services as a memorial to the grandparents, parents and children he’s helped families bury over the years.
“The first funeral I had was a police officer, Felix Barta,” Harnish said, referring to a Cedar Rapids police officer fatally shot when responding to a domestic disturbance Feb. 15, 1961. “I was 25 years old and shaking like a leaf. All the police and state patrol officers were there. It took us 45 minutes to get up to the grave.”
Children’s funerals are the hardest, Harnish said. He remembers the 14-year-old boy who called him in the middle of the night from a pay phone to say he was going to shoot himself.
“By the time I got there, he had done himself in,” Harnish said.
As Harnish was driving to the funeral, wracked with guilt about not arriving in time to save the boy, Harnish asked God to help him figure out what to say. The idea came to ask whether the family would have traded those 14 years with the boy if they knew he would die early — a question that prompted the family to focus on the boy’s life, not death.
“We’re all going to die someday,” Harnish said, adding he’s already made his burial plans — cremation with his ashes put in a columbarium.
The funeral programs Harnish keeps in long, slim crates celebrate thousands of Cedar Rapidians. Some have stock photos of sunsets, flowers or Jesus, but most show the face of the person who died and some version of their obituary. The most popular readings are Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer, Harnish said.
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As for songs, “The Czech people like ‘Going Home’ or ‘How Great Thou Art’,” Harnish said.
“It’s the most appreciated part of the ministry,” Harnish said of presiding over funerals.
On the site of his childhood home in the New Bohemia District, Harnish owns the Wedding Garden, a gazebo and benches where he’s officiated weddings in recent years. The site is dedicated to his parents, William J. and Viola M. Harnish, who both were captains in The Salvation Army.
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