I attended a funeral this past Saturday. It was for the father of one of my wife’s childhood friends, someone she had fallen out of touch with over the past twenty-five years. As with so many other people from our past they recently re-established contact on facebook. Me? I have not only never met these people, but hadn’t ever heard of them prior to this past week.
I was there to comfort my wife, her considerate arrival at this funeral of someone she had suddenly declared her “best friend in high school,” this funeral of a man she had known when he’d amused her on the nights she slept over their house, playing the generous host while she gossiped cruelly with her friends as most teenage girls will do.
I went to the same high school as my wife, but we were never childhood sweethearts. In fact we did not know each other at all, our school a sort of massive conglomerate that divided people into social classes in the cruel manner of economic divisions, and the awkward battle between the shy and the mercilessly outgoing, between the academically obsessed and the indifferent ‘druggies,’ as well as every other imposed division devised to keep all of us feeling like outliers.
Anyway, at the funeral I was one of quite a number of spouses, standing in the background while those we love who were in the know commiserated and remembered the exaggerated glories of the fallen that all funerals present. This is in no way meant as a slight upon the individual this ceremony recognized, nor, even, for any of the fallen. It is merely a curious fact that people whom we sometimes could not stand no matter how much we loved them are suddenly, in death, transformed into saints for whom nothing they did could ever have been wrong.
A few notes, fully aware that I will likely offend and even enrage that handful of compatriots whom I actually once knew in attendance, but the scene, here, at this ceremony that I otherwise had no right to attend, fascinated me. In fact my wife told me to “stop being weird” as I scanned around the room, covertly listening to conversations, observing the intentional beauty of the room, acknowledging the fact that every available light was blazing there at 11 o’clock in the morning, and searching the ceiling for cracks, or for any flaw that might make this lovely spot into an actual place of human cohabitation.
The minister was wonderful, a statement that many longtime readers here might find surprising given my overall animus towards organized religion. Like myself, the preacher had never met the man, yet his eloquent imagination and knowledge of the words of comfort fellow half-hearted believers might find inspiring, made this former public school and college divinity professor quite a respectable showman, providing both genuine laughter at a funeral as well as a reconsideration of the tenants of the church, suggesting, even, that God does not care which faith you choose to follow, if any at all. No, he referred to some amorphous idea of “the way,” adding “Jesus” for the consideration of numerous people in attendance, and declared simply that being true to yourself and following your honest beliefs (your “way,”) is the path to follow on the road to some questionable heavenly approval. This man managed to denounce prejudice, arrogance, heresy and fundamentalism all the while praising this lost man whom I suspect had little regard for the Lutheran faith of his father.
The preacher was delightfully contemporary, offering a few self-deprecating additions about his ignorance in the face of a man quite obviously truly beloved. He declared that for all the words of comfort he might have to offer, and for all the love individual speakers might express, that there was no better statement of just how much the man was loved than our attendance. Clearly the man had spoken to the family, no doubt asking clever questions that allowed him to riff on a theme mostly alluded to. He hit on several of the clear major characteristics of the man–his tinkering, his generous offering to fix anything for anyone. It was mentioned that he had been “a man of few words,” the preacher good-naturedly adding, “He was German, after all.” (The late patriarch had been born in Germany as WWII was just breaking out and his liberal family fled while there was still time).
On the biblical side of the eulogy the minister had what were likely repeated statements from many previous funerals, but they were still very effective. When talking about Christ he said that “even when Jesus knew he was going to suffer and die the next day, he didn’t sit there in misery, lamenting his fate. No, he had a big party with his closest friends to celebrate life.” He added, “When one member of His crew rolled on Jesus, he didn’t simmer and vow revenge, but forgave Judas and opened His heart to celebrate the man.” These were powerful statements. They are quoted verbatim. One can strip the mysticism from all of this and realize that stories themselves are what offer us the most comfort.
The man openly mocked the “magic” of the church and outright stated (and this at a funeral) that those who preach such nonsense–and he in particular targeted evangelicals and mega churches–are false prophets. He never went so far as to re-emerge and challenge them as being directed by demons (he would have laughed this off too), but his social criticism of the collapse of religious faith rang a deep cord within me, as well as with so many people in attendance.
The whole scene at the funeral was curious. I was dressed in my finest, sharp and shaven and clean. The only other people so stiffly stuffed into their black suits were the others like me who hardly knew anyone: spouses and companions there to offer peripheral comfort to the mourners. The rest of the crowd–those who knew the man–wore surprisingly casual, bright, colorful outfits. Looking into the creased eyes of several of the fallen’s contemporaries it is hard not to think that the man wasn’t somehow involved in the hippie counterculture in his youth. Some of these old friends of his remain hippies to this day, at least according to their style of dress and a few words picked up in passing.
I realize that the bulk of this commentary is expressed in profound ignorance of the specifics of mourning and, more importantly, on the importance of the late man’s life. But, as I admitted, I never knew him. Why should my words regarding his life be of any value to anyone? The minister himself admitted as much. He kept returning to the crowd, asking for their help. There were numerous eulogies, some more heartfelt and beautiful than others. His grandchildren spoke, mostly in carefully selected biblical verse, those well known words of comfort that kind of sink into you when wishing for the best in another life and another world to come. One of the man’s daughters’s offered a handwritten, sharp, funny and mournful commentary, and this was the most powerful remembrance of the man. Even the minister stood back for a moment as she finished her eulogy. He smiled. You could see that he wanted to applaud. Myself, an occasional theatergoer–I thought about clapping too. But of course a funeral is the wrong place for such praise. It is still a solemn, depressing, awful thing. No one wants to be there.
And so I ask you, many of you: how many funerals have you attended in your life? How many of them touched you? Now exclude those for whom you specifically mourned; those family members and close friends and those for whom your life will never be the same. I was deeply moved. I believe that this says a great deal about the passing of this man. I don’t want to say it because the non-secular meaning of this holds utterly no value for me, but, nevertheless, in celebration of this person I never knew . . . Amen . . .