If my experience is any indication, the Catholic Church has cornered the market on tear-jerking funeral songs. The opening hymn at Uncle P’s Mass on Wednesday was “Here I Am”. And it went downhill from there. “Shepherd Me, O God”, “On Eagles Wings”? Guaranteed to make you cry.
Aunt K had checked on all of us at the final viewing earlier that morning. “No one’s crying, right?” she said, coming up to my mother, father, sister and me. I gave a short laugh. “I’m serious [Childhood Pet Name]. You could crack.”
I come from a family of Irish and Italian stoics, by the way. Show No Emotion is on the family crest. Though it’s okay if you’ve been drinking.
I’m glad I was sitting behind Aunt K at the church, then. My father, mother, sister and I were waterworks central. We were not the only ones. I am glad that people sitting near us had a box of Kleenex.
I had been telling people that Uncle P was very sick for a long time — which was true. Uncle P had been receiving dialysis for about three years, and although he had recovered from prostate cancer a couple of years ago, he wasn’t what you would consider in robust health. He had beaten the odds several times over the years. He was doing okay, until Christmas Eve, when he fell.
So although he was sick for a long time, his death (after surgery for a broken hip) was still quite sudden.
Hence, the emotion at his funeral. It was running higher — in me, too — than I had thought it would.
The other contributing factor to the height of emotion is the simple fact that as every wedding reminds you of your own wedding, so each funeral reminds you of funerals you have gone to (through) before. The list of the dead goes through your mind. And it can start anywhere.
Uncle P was an uncle, a father, a brother, a husband. We have been here before for Uncle J, Aunt J’s husband (suddenly, of pancreatic cancer), for Uncle K, Aunt M’s husband (slowly, of COPD). Uncle P had buried a baby; so have I; my Uncle JP, my father’s brother, buried his 20-year-old son (suddenly, in a car accident). These ‘babies’ were someone’s grandchild, too, someone’s sibling.
Grief is hard. And it never goes away. It becomes background to the life you live with the living. And then you attend a funeral, you honor the life of another lost one, and the grief moves to the forefront again.
Funerals also make us aware of our mortality. My mother and father let us know of their plans for when they die — well, their preferences, in any case. It was a little creepy to talk about, but as they don’t plan on dying for another 30 years — right, Mom, Dad? We agreed on 30 years? — it was okay to talk about too.
One of their wishes that struck me a particularly difficult to imagine following through on is their wish that we don’t come ‘visit’ them. “I’m not there,” my dad pointed out. “You will be able to talk to me from anywhere, anytime,” my mother said.
Which brought to mind my annual or semi-annual visits to Gabriel’s gravesite. I know that he is not there. I like to think that Gabriel passed from a world of warmth, love, and darkness to one of warmth, love, and light. That tiny white casket we buried contains nothing more than an earthly shell.
But still, that’s the place I go, at least once a year, to lay white flowers down. To visit; to say, ‘I remember you.’ That’s all, and that’s what I need.
If my parents don’t care about us ‘visiting’ them after they are gone, that is well and good. But I think rituals — such as a funeral mass, a eulogy, a resting place to lay flowers down — those are for the living.
Which is why, if it’s all the same to them, I’ll inter my parents in Hawaii, and visit them there.
…He took my hand. But he was still anxious. “You were wrong to come. You’ll suffer. I’ll look as if I’m dead, and that won’t be true…”
I said nothing.
“You understand. It’s too far. I can’t take this body with me….”
I said nothing.
“But it’ll be like an old abandoned shell. There’s nothing sad about an old shell.”
— The Little Prince, Antione de Saint-Exupery
* adj., of or suitable for a funeral