The finality of funerals - in 1000 Words or Less
I said our next post would be about originality and the movie, Pulp Fiction. Something came up though, so we’ll get to that topic in a couple of weeks.
Not too long ago, I had to attend a funeral. “Had” is the right word because the…event…is inherently sorrowful and miserable and as much as everyone wants to be there, nobody wants to be there.
The individual whose life we were celebrating, and whose loss we were mourning, became sick and succumbed to cancer quickly. In a matter of four weeks he went from doing typical old guy stuff—doctor’s appointments, crossword puzzles, television with the volume way too loud—to passing away. For the immediate family, that was a long four weeks, incredibly hard and incredibly distressing. They were on standby for the inevitable, and as with so many moments in life, waiting is sometimes worse than the event itself.
It wasn’t easy for my wife to sit at her dying father’s bedside and listen while he told her what hymns he wanted at his funeral.
It wasn’t easy for my sister-in-law to listen while he explained his personal banking procedures, so going forward, she could help her widowed mother.
When he ultimately passed away, it wasn’t easy for my brother-in-law to write an obituary.
Cards arrived by the truckload, all of which my mother-in-law appreciated and all of which made her cry.
The minister visited and my wife and her siblings discussed the hymns and the biblical passages, and if that weren’t hard enough on the three of them, the minister wanted stories and anecdotes, presumably to personalize the service.
There were a great number of mundane chores. Church bulletins needed to be printed. Catering needed to be arranged. Someone had to buy a guest book, and let me tell you…walking into a Party City store with floor to ceiling Halloween decorations and wall to wall helium balloons, to purchase a guest book for a funeral is an odd dichotomy.
All these tasks sound like a great deal to manage but there was still plenty of time to remember why out-of-town people were gathering. There was plenty of time to figure out what could, or couldn’t be done without a death certificate in hand. There was plenty of time for my wife to teach her mother how to work the PVR; as in many homes, her mother didn’t have control of the remote.
I’m not sure what was harder on my wife, the loss of her father or her mother’s bewilderment.
As with any event, there are often hiccups. Small issues assume big proportions, like when it turned out the guitarist and keyboard player at the church didn’t know how to play two of the carefully selected hymns. As usually happens, perfectly acceptable and sometimes even better solutions, present themselves. In this case, one of my father-in-law’s great-grandsons, who at fourteen is an extraordinarily talented violinist, said he could play the hymns, and he did so in a way that would have made his grandfather explode with unabashed pride.
It seems to me a funeral is about a life well lived, it introduces a biblical element and it does nothing to mitigate sorrow. For a life-long Presbyterian, a funeral was the only option, as opposed to a celebration of life. Given the previous week, in which very few positives occurred, I expected a sombre affair, a culmination of grief.
I wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t entirely right either.
Hymns at any time, particularly at a funeral, often bring tears. There’s a finality to a funeral; it’s right there on the bulletin. It’s impossible to look at the last sentence and not think, When this is over, we’ll all leave and move on because that’s all there is. There were lots of hugs that I can only describe as desperate and there were lots of handshakes, maybe because some people didn’t know what else to do. Other than the children, most people barely touched the food, perhaps because sharing snacks helps turn an event into a social occasional, and nobody attends a funeral as a social occasion.
While I stood there, feeling like an insensitive moron because I didn’t know what to do or say and I don’t care for hugging or scenes of extreme emotion, it occured to me that the funeral wasn’t the pinnacle of sorrow at the end of a terrible week that I expected it to be.
The music was fine. A Christian rock band could have turned the second hymn into a head-banging anthem. When the great-grandson played his violin, fine music turned amazing. I found the biblical passages less obscure than usual. The sermon was excellent; the minister managed to get an unhappy crowd to laugh a time or two. And, when the church eventually emptied, marking the end of the week and the end of the service, the finality of it all didn’t hit me like I thought it would.
My nephew took his grandfather’s loss hard. I said to him, “I was very close to my grandfather. I know what you’re going through. This is no kind of fun. Hang in there.” I doubt he’ll remember my remarks. Why would he? They were banal...they were also true. I miss my own grandfather as much as ever. But, there’s no finality in missing him and there never will be. When he passed away, I held on and of course, the sadness faded with the passage of time. Now the memories are good.
I can’t think of a single reason to remember the week leading up the funeral. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the funeral itself was nice, but it had moments worth remembering, like ignoring the snotty Kleenex my wife clutched the entire week and holding her hand anyway, providing her what little comfort I could.
Like the brief conversation with my nephew,
Like the great-grandson’s final song, a Scottish tune that somehow sounded like bagpipes on his violin,
Like talking to my mother-in-law before the service began, and agreeing…if someone kept count of these sort of things, He would have approved at the sheer number of people who filled the church to bursting.
It was sorrowful, but it wasn’t miserable.
See you in two weeks.