Thursday, January 29, 2009

Just funerals

The topic of funerals came up today; several have been mentioned in the local news recently. It made me stop and think of the ones I've attended. A few for co-workers; a couple of good friends; a couple grandmothers; a dozen or so total strangers.

Steve Councilman's funeral was a relatively sedate non-denominational 'memorial service' held at a funeral home. If you attended our wedding, his wife was my Best Woman; he unfortunately didn't make it there. In fact, one of the last things he heard the night he died was of our engagement. RoseAnn was understandably distraught. The little kernel of my/her friends in Lansing wanted to give her a break between the memorial and the Mourners' Decent Upon Her Home. There was a little wooden chalice-like object sitting on a table at the head of the room where the memorial was held. Since it had been present for the funeral service, and since we were going to go out for beer as a fitting wake, we took the chalice with us. It was just a solid wood cup - like a cup, but solid. Pity, we said, if it had been a real chalice, we would have filled it with beer for our fallen comrade.

There were at least 2 dozen of us at Moriarity's on Michigan Avenue. As with Weddings, Funerals tend to bring people together who otherwise wouldn't do so voluntarily. There was a bit of silent, unacknowledged tension as seating was worked out - who could sit next to whom, without saying "Get the hell away from me Foul Creature of Adultery's Abyss". The waitress comes, we all order beer, with an extra one for Steve. The pint of Guinness was set next to the little wooden thing in the center of our table. More than an hour later, after stories of our friend, catching up on the stories of our own lives, we decide to head over to RoseAnn's and pay our respects. Considering the sorrow of the whole thing, it was a fairly good day.

... about 2 years later ...

I am over at RoseAnn's house for a hockey game, or some thing. I notice on the fireplace mantle the little wooden cup-thing. I said, 'I remember this from Steve's funeral', and chuckled at the memory of the beer. RoseAnn glanced at me, looked sort of regretful, and said, "well, I buried most of his ashes, and decided to keep a bit for myself."

So ... I told the Gang we had quite literally taken Steve's ashes with us to have our wake. Steve was no doubt looking down upon us and laughing his ass off.

Fred Spencer was a leading light in the medieval re-enactment group I belonged to; he was the commanding officer for a Michigan National Guard company. I knew quite a few people in both groups. His family is a very traditional Italian-American group. The funeral was a totally gung-ho Roman Catholic Funeral Mass. His male relatives provided the pall bearers into the church, the medieval reenactors carried the casket out of the church, and the National Guard provided the military funeral honors at the grave side. The night before his funeral, I was swiftly sewing patches and decorations onto Army uniforms for the previous resident of my house and all of our friends who were likewise Heraldic-ly impaired. The Guard/Reserves don't wear dress uniforms very often, or at least the MP & Armor units don't. Most of the fellows hadn't bothered to change patches/rank insignia etc. in years. I sat & sewed more insignia at the funeral home when the other soldiers realized I would. Fred would have loved the panoply that was his funeral.

At Grammy's funeral, Mr.Gopher couldn't make it out to Jersey, so Jr.Gopher#1 and I went. He was 11 months old at the time. It was a pretty short, straightforward service. It's not as if there were enough people to have a 'panoply'. The priest at one point asked all of Gert's grandchildren to come up for a prayer, inviting us to each put our hand on the casket for a blessing. All 10 of us were there, along with 6 (7?) great-grandchildren. Jr.Gopher#1 and I were standing at the priest's left hand. Jr. watches everyone else, leans forward out of my arms, and slaps his hand right down on the casket with the rest of us. I saw a real smile on the priest's face. Julie had found miniature spearmint jelly candies & was distributing them at the wake. I'm not sure if Grammy would have approved of her funeral. I'm pretty sure she would have enjoyed getting to see us, though I imagine that after a 30 year delay, getting to see Grandpa again probably trumped us kids.

Yes, I've been to the funeral of a total stranger.

St. John's Student Parish had music for all of its (very infrequent) funerals. Depending on our schedules, some of the choir would show up just to help provide music. I've never managed to get through a funeral without crying. One young woman drowned in one of Michigan's lakes, due to having a seizure while swimming; she had epilepsy. She was still living at home, and likely would always have, due to other health issues. Listening to the various eulogies, I was struck by how full her life sounded. Handicaps apparently didn't handicap her ability and willingness to simply live and enjoy life. It brought me to wonder if it is better to live for only 25 years, having a wonderful life, or stretch it out to 90 and be miserable? On the other hand ...

The most emotionally draining funeral I ever attended was at St. John's. I got the message: Funeral tomorrow, come if you can. Upon being told the deceased was a child, it was a bit harder to focus, thinking if a child is 18 years old when she dies it's bad enough, but this child was 18 months old. Myself and the other 2 or 3 people tried to emotionally brace ourselves. As I mentioned, I always cry at funerals. (Lots of other times, too.) The opening song started and I was fine - until the casket was brought in. The tiny, tiny, oh so tiny container for such a little life. Tears started right then. Her mother was beyond distraught, sobbing great shuddering cries of despair and loss, hanging on the edge of the tiny white box. I never want to do that again. Never.

On the other end of the scale, the choir (we were a busy lot) went to the St. Lawrence Hospital hospice one Sunday per month after Mass. The small entry area there had an upright piano and was large enough for a dozen or so of us to gather. We sang songs for the people staying there: happy songs, quiet songs, new songs, old songs. One woman asked to be brought out of her room to see us. The acoustics down the hall toward the rooms was good, but she wanted to actually see us sing. Occasionally we'd get a request from one of the people. We would always do them. Occasionally someone would say "that's my father's favorite song", or "could you sing that again for my sister?" One afternoon, the request was from a woman who couldn't get up. About 5 minutes later, the nurse came out and told us the woman had passed away very quietly and peacefully. I would happily do that again.

We didn't get a chance to attend Mr.Gopher's Uncle Josef's funeral. Big trans-Atlantic flights put a damper on family unity in the face of grief. We tried to explain death in general terms to Jr.Gopher #1. He knows we used to have another cat; he's never met Josef ... it's all an intellectual exercise trying to explain that Uncle Josef is with God now.

I remember one of our dogs dying when I was very young; it's my first recollection of any death. I remember being incredibly disturbed and confused when someone tried to explain to me that dogs don't go to Heaven. I just cried and cried over the thought that our pet might not go to heaven, a state which I assumed was the natural conclusion of life. Despite the technicalities of theology explained to me, I didn't care if dogs had souls or not. How could someone say Bismark had no soul? 'Cause I gotta tell you, 30+ years later, I firmly believe that my cat Shiro had a soul. The ability to love is a consequence of having a soul. All cats? No. My cat? Yes.

Ah, it's 11:58 p.m. Death of another sort - the daily release of consciousness - is upon me.

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