Celebrating Life with a Pocket Full of Death
“Death,” wrote John Steinbeck, “is a personal matter, arousing sorrow, despair, fervor, or dry-hearted philosophy…Funerals, on the other hand, are social functions.”
I’m not a fan of social functions. I make it a habit to avoid them. I’ve been to a whole mess of funerals. Those are less avoidable.
They tend to come in spurts, the old timers will tell you. Those folks who talk of the “rule of three” — that three people die in close chronological order in any given time — may have a point, but there are seasons of life where death comes in spurts and one places the “rule of three” in a framed picture on the nightstand by the living’s bed. This framing would be done to better facilitate the wistful gazing and hopeless wishing for the day only three folks you knew shuffled off the mortal coil in close proximity. Perhaps there is a superstitious numerical rule to it, or some astrological algorithm dictating such things, but more probably eternity has a certain circadian rhythm to the sleep of death, same as living sleep does. It comes in waves, with troughs and peaks and all manner of choppy water in between to navigate.
Checking the inside jacket pocket of my best suit, worn almost exclusively for the social function portion of death as it is currently my only suit that fits, shows that the Almighty has seen fit to not only enforce the rule of three but square it in recent months. The habit of putting the funeral programs in that pocket, and leaving them there, brought a chuckle of realization at the latest service. A friend sitting behind inquired what I was amused by, perhaps concerned that their Baptist friend was having fun at the expense of their beloved one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. No, I assured them, and showed the stack of paper I had been carrying around to their sympathetic head shake.
Then it was back to the issue at hand that found us at mass in St Patrick’s on that particular morning for the rather grand sounding “Celebration of the Eucharist and the Rite of Committal” for a friend. Sitting among the two pews full of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop along with the other parents was a new thing, despite my many funerals. All but one of the Girl Scouts, that is, as their friend they had came to support was sitting a few pews further up, at the front, beside and at times on the lap of her father, and roughly ten feet to the left of the pedestal where the processional had put the box of her mother’s remains for the duration of the service. In whispered tones I try to explain to my own children, who had never been to a Catholic Mass before, let alone one as part of a funeral and committal service, the mysteries of the Church of Roman to distract them from the bigger questions that have even harder answers. Questions like how to help their friend, how a woman who was doing scout meetings and cookie booths with them was untimely and shockingly dead, why does the incense smell like that, how life isn’t fair, how death is certain, what time is this over ‘cause I want to eat.
Funeral mass with our Catholic friends was a strange combination of the familiar and the mysterious. Feeling like a pilgrim in a foreign land, but a land with many recognizable landmarks. Weeks before I had been to another service, this one far to the south in Florida, in a Methodist church which was the preferred faith of my mother’s side of the family. The church my uncle and aunt had been members of for nearly 60 years did a magnificent job honoring him upon his death. I sat with the rest of the family in the front pews with the “reserved” placarding and laughed at all the stories of a full life, cried through the violin/piano rendition of “Country Roads” by my little cousins, and generally felt it all very well done. But still in the back of my mind were the questions I knew most of the answers too, but which one’s brain asks the hurting heart anyway. Questions like how to help my family members, why a life of adventure and boldness ends in the withering of Parkinson’s, how life can be both fully blessed and unfair at the same time, how death is certain, and what time is this over ‘cause I want to eat.
Familiar as that was, it was also different from another funeral just weeks before. Sitting in the Baptist church in which I grew from boy to man, that my parents had attended for 26 years, that felt as much like home as any residence I ever lived in. The crowd was full of folks my own age whom I grew up with, sitting in the pews we had as kids with our own children now the ages we were then, and for this occasion were in our minds. This was fitting as the man we had come to honor was a big part of that growing up experience. We laughed at the stories that I cannot even share— you would think them too outrageous— and cried, and talked about how none of us could imagine growing up without him being a part of it. Like many of the others present, he had given me some of my first paying jobs, doing odd things for pocket money. He had seen both the highs and lows of life, and when the federal government couldn’t break his spirit cancer tried. It too failed. It got his body in the end but not his soul and wit and giant heart.
That isn’t just hyperbole; the hospice folks had to spend three extra days with him because even after all medical activity had ceased — and there was no life left beyond medical technicalities — his heart just kept beating on anyway, fittingly defiant to the end. The service having already been scheduled for the following Friday, he teased being late to his own funeral, almost like he planned it that way but stopped short of doing it so as not to inconvenience anyone. I wept at that information, so fitting a tribute and summation of my friend’s life, and sat through the service and listened to the words and songs but still had those questions in my mind claw up. Questions like how to help his family members left behind, comforting my friends and family around me. Questions of whether I could be half the moral and spiritual giant of this man now dead, one of the most Christ-like persons I’ve ever met of those who claim that kind of faith, but who some derided because of a criminal conviction announced in headlines while the injustice of it was only proclaimed by his friends. Questions of how life isn’t fair, how death is certain, how long will this take because I know how well they do food in this church and I want to eat.
That familiar was still different from another place a few funerals before that, the social functions of a death bringing me to a place where my life had began. This was yet another friend, a different life from the others but one that ended just like all lives do, and with friends and family gathering. But this familiar was more like fleeting memory, of the earliest times of my life half remembered and mostly known from being told about them by others. This time in a small country church where the cell reception still hasn’t reached and Google Maps is confused about the location of saw the first decade or so of my life. The people and faces of this small crowd I had not seen in 25-30 years or more in some cases. An odd gap of time, larger than the amount of time spent in the rest of life, adding to the oddly-familiar-but-not-quite feeling. This was a wake, the old fashioned visitation before the funeral and burial the next day. I could not attend the service but made the wake on purpose to show my respect to a great man. A master craftsman, he lay in the front of the church in a casket he himself had made by hand with the help of an Amish community he had befriended. A master musician, the music playing over the speakers in the church was he himself playing along. A strong man of character, his two daughters that are my age and I caught up about how he had raised them himself. A full life. A blessed life. And yet those nagging questions raised in my mind about how to help those I had barely spoken to in two decades, how life was wonderful but not fair, how death was certain, and how long this would take because I was hungry and they were not feeding us here. That night the food was gas station Subway with my father on the ride home.
St Patrick’s Catholic Church fed us much better after the procession to the internment. Even walking behind the priest and deceased out to the final resting place, the questions rose both quietly in my mind and out loud from my children. Questions like why was life so unfair, why was death certain, what happens if they have to walk too far and they run out of Saints to name, can I use my IPhone in a Catholic church, why do bad things happen to good people, how long will this take because I want to eat. And then the words are said, prayers are prayed, the crowd disperses some. I fold the funeral program and put it inside my jacket pocket, joining far to many others. The Girl Scouts are in a mass huddle, first laughing, then crying, then laughing again. Trying to process all those questions I myself have but without the benefit of my life experiences to filter them through, and my knowledge that there is no real answers that satisfy, especially at that age. That the funeral, while also a family and religious service, is a social function where humanity is shared and mortality contemplated since funerals are not easily avoidable, especially your own. Heavy stuff for young girls and hardened adults alike.
Except one answer. Which is, after all, the answer that was needed at that moment to prove to children just beginning their lives that life would indeed go on for a little while longer. It was provided by their troop leader, in the middle of the gaggle of cry-laughing girls, wiping her own tears and raising her voice.
“Ok, enough crying, let’s go eat.”