Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Okay, now I feel old; plus, comments on funerals

Not that any of these were entirely unexpected, but my network of connections got hit with three funerals this week. The first was the wife of my good friend Anthony. (I was the best man at the wedding.) The second was that of Mrs.' s cousin's husband, Stacey, who was sent home several weeks ago in the final throes of Stage IV colon cancer; that was Saturday. And while scouting the obit notices for word of the first two, I came across the obit for the father of my good pal Richard, who was also dead of cancer (I hadn't known how far gone he was).

And so I came into a situation that most people (outside the mortuary industry or a mass tragedy) never face until they are Old: multiple funerals in one day. Today it rained and poured and my friend put his dad into the ground after singing an a cappella "Ave Maria" that brought half the congregation to tears. The other service, alas, was simultaneous with this one and I could not attend. My friend Anthony is struggling to cope and I'm going to do the Gentile equivalent of "sitting shiva" with him.

Funerals are strange things, at times. Everyone feels awkward, or sad, or both. There are always the few who try to bring laughter to fend off the pain of grief. (I'm one of these.) And then there is the casket. I was very surprised to see the preacher open it at the end of the service; generally, this is what the visitation/wake accomplishes. It is a well-known detail amongst my friends and family that, in the event of my demise, any open-casket arrangement must be set up so that I am making moose antlers at the mourners. I am not kidding. Either pose me right or shut the damn lid.

Also, the preacher (being a good evangelical) took about ten minutes during the service to do Come To Jesus. Eternity occupies us all during a funeral, but I like to think my commitment to Jesus comes from genuine self-reflection, conscious and rational choice, and love above all --and not because I'm suddenly afraid of if I'm going to spend the next world someplace where the thermostat is stuck on "broil." I ought not to throw stones here, for some this could have been a saving message of grace out of despair. Yet that one portion of the service left me strangely cold.

It also reminds me of the futility of being over-sad at a funeral. No, I'm not arguing that grief is unnatural or unwarranted or unbecoming. Grief is part of healing. But in the end, funerals are for the living and not the dead (at least in the Protestant tradition). To the dead, it is sound and fury signifying.... what? That your relatives cared enough to spend a ton of money on a single-use landfill and the accoutrements? Death reminds us of life: that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We ultimately cannot know what it is to live until we know death. We do not nor ought to worship death, but respect it nevertheless as part of life. If we profess to know no God or gods, and no stage of existence beyond our own mortal selves, then death is the final release from pain, from sorrow, from hurt, and we should be glad. If we profess faith, then we see death as a stage on our journey into the Eternal. No matter which way you slice it, death itself has an upside. And so, whenever I see people carrying on hysterically at a funeral (not today, things were quiet), I am saddened.

Smile, then, be of good cheer. Cherish the memories. Relish your life the more. For this, too, shall pass.

1 comment:

Roy said...

Your "pose me right" made me think of this recent "most-viewed" Yahoo news photo.