Thursday, September 24, 2009

Funerals & Death

This I Believe essay this week is moving, "you should always go to the funeral". I concur. We must have people to usher us in, godparents and such; we must have people to usher us out. Someone. Anyone.

Funerals are educational experiences. We learn about our relatives: sometimes the dead ones, sometimes the living.

I never asked, I always assume I went to my Grandfather Sullivan's funeral. I was a year and a half. I learned much later that it must have been utterly horrible - he died at my aunt's wedding.

The next one I remember attending was for my Grandmother Smith; I think I was in college. I discovered a younger cousin I hadn't seen since I was 7 is a total ass.

Then Aunt Alice's; I discovered she was called Sister Leonardine when she first took her vows.

Quite a few years later, Grandmother Sullivan: it was the 2nd time I ever saw my mother cry.

The Petitions in a Catholic Mass include some standard prayers: for the sick, for the prayers we hold in our hearts, and for the dead. During the last of these, I silently remember those people whom I personally know who have died. Not my grandparents, not that I don't care about them. I do specifically remember them on the big Masses involving death: Feast of All Souls and Good Friday.

The ones I recall are Danny Ferguson (hunting accident, high school classmate), Steve Councilman (thrombosis, SCA), Fred Spencer (power tool accident, SCA), Pete Wakeman (drug overdose, coworker), Earl Davis (motorcycle accident, coworker), Mimi Fusco (cancer, coworker). Hopefully it will be a while before the list gets longer. I personally went to Steve, Fred & Pete's funerals. They were all huge. Steve & Fred were both very popular. All 3 were in their 30s.

Fred's was the first (partially) military funeral I attended. He was the CO of a Mich. Nat'l Guard unit. He was also a rather large figure within the SCA. The pall bearers on the way into the Funeral Mass were family & friends. On the way out of the church it was the SCA dressed in their medieval military finest. The National Guard took over at the cemetery. I spent the previous day at the wake sewing things onto Army uniforms: their Guard unit never wears its dress uniforms & quite a few of the guys had out-of-date stuff. The soldiers flat out refused to wear the wrong insignia. (This would be more moving, in my opinion, if they hadn't waited till the last minute to do something about it; at least they all said thank you.)

Steve's funeral was a non-denominational agnostic affair, unlike Fred's gung-ho Italian Catholic Mass. There was a little wooden chalice-looking affair in a place of honor. We all assumed it was a place-holder in lieu of a casket. We knew he was going to be cremated & buried. Since it was there, we took it with us to have a private wake: we went to Moriarity's for a drink between the memorial and paying our respects to his wife. RoseAnn had been our friend far longer than Steve. We bought an extra beer, Steve's favorite kind, placing it next to the little chalice-looking thing in the center of the tables. Dave returned it to the funeral parlor later that afternoon. Two years later I was at RoseAnn's and noticed it on her mantle piece. Uhhhh.... We apparently took Steve's ashes to the pub with us. There is absolutely no question that Steve would have found this not only appropriate but funnier than hell.

Co-workers are different in some respects. We only know them through that narrow facet we see on the job. Some times their death is ordinary. Some times it makes us re-think our perceptions. Earl was 72, still working, and got killed while enjoying a motorcycle ride on a beautiful Summer weekend afternoon. Dick died of some ordinary cause, but his spouse blamed it on occupational exposure; the internal investigation was a first for me. Pete died of an OD, which made me wonder how he managed to hide it; then I wondered if he even did hide it from his close co-workers. Mimi struggled to keep working through chemo because she had an obsession about not being dependent upon anyone else.

Some times the deceased is not human. I remember Bismark being put to sleep when I was a kid. Fricka died of old age in the warm Summer sun in her sleep. Shiro died unexpectedly of a blood clot one morning. I learned what it means to make a decision to end a life. He was the first pet who was really "mine", rather than a collective family pet.

We expect death. It requires quite a bit of planning to avoid Death: daily diet, exercise, check-ups, etc. It requires even more planning, if less effort, to plan for Death. Mr.Gopher & I have recently been discussing funeral arrangements and wills. What do we want done with our mortal remains? Where should we be buried? What should I do with his assets which aren't quite Joint? What if we both die at the same time? Who should be designated as the boys' guardians.

We teach our children about death. I am perhaps thankful that the first relative to die since our children were born is an uncle they never met (living on different continents is challenging to maintaining that family tree). We could explain that Uncle Josef died & is in heaven with God. All 3 concepts are rather abstract at this point in their lives. We visited a cemetery in town, for a physical experience to see what happens after you die. We figured it would provide a non-emotional introduction to Death; because one of these days - God let it be long off - someone the boys know will die and it will be emotionally devastating.

Educational as well is observing how people respond to death. I am constitutionally incapable of attending a funeral and not crying. Doesn't matter whether or not I know the person. I cry. Always. I used to be embarrassed about this. Being in the choir at St. John's relieved me of that idiocy. (the embarrassment, that is; I still cry)

The church always provided a piano player and one vocalist for funerals. Some of the choir offered its services to supplement this; I went whenever I was able. I cried every time. One day it was a funeral for an 18-month old baby. I knew ahead it was a baby; I burst into tears when I saw the casket enter the church. The casket was so tiny, so very, very tiny. I cannot understand how the cantor could make it without crying. The baby's mother was beyond distraught & had to be helped to walk down the aisle. It was somehow an obscene reversal of walking down the same aisle with one's new husband in anticipation of life.

My studies have include much in the way of mortality. Public Health runs from neo-natal to post mortem. Epidemiology addresses many different ways of analyzing death and illness. Numbers make it easier to learn about the public's health while remaining totally dissociated from Death itself.

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note: a reduced & slightly modified version of this was sent to This I Believe. I assure you I'll post it, if the publish it. Not likely, but what the hell...? Is that something one would include on one's CV with the list of publications?

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1 comment:

ccyager said...

Hmmmmm...death. The first funeral I remember going to was a cousin and he was ancient when he died. The coffin was open and I swear he was breathing....

My high school best friend and I went to a classmate's funeral -- she'd been killed when the plane she was in exploded from a terrorist bomb over the Andes. My BF giggled through the entire service. I was shocked and mortified, but I learned that people deal with grief in unique personal ways.

I always cry at weddings and funerals. I dislike both and have attended more funerals than weddings. Not because I cry but because they are usually crowded. My mother banned me from her funeral. I didn't know about it until weeks after it was over. I wouldn't have gone anyway...I was too sick at that time and I couldn't travel. I had surgery not long after she died and found out about her death the day I was discharged. Great fun.

I don't want a funeral. I want a memorial service (I plan to be cremated) that's an Irish wake. I'd much prefer lots of music, dancing, singing, laughing and crying, sharing stories and jokes. I tend to think the Judeo-Christian tradition can be terribly morbid about death.

And yes, include it on your CV. Publication on the Web is now recognized as a legitimate publication credit.