Thursday, August 11, 2005

Four Funerals and a Wedding

This past spring and summer has been an inverse of the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral” – it’s been more like “Four Funerals and a Wedding”. It always seems to me that funerals tend to happen in clusters. The old adage that bad news always comes in “threes” seems to have some sort of basis in fact. But I know that the truth is that given a planetary population of over six billion people, a goodly number of them will be leaving this plane to find life elsewhere on any given day. I often tell people who find themselves attending many funerals in a given time span that their problem is not that everyone is dying, but in fact that they simply know too many people.

There are some things about funerals that I have noticed. First, no one really likes funerals, not even those who do it as their livelihood. Funeral directors see themselves as offering a consolation service and find satisfaction in that. People fall on one of two sides of funerals either rising to the occasion for person bereft or avoiding them altogether. There never seems to be a middle ground. Second, I’ve noticed that some people – many people in fact – think of another’s death as the last great social hurrah for a loved one; one last chance to “strut their stuff” – or at least the “stuff” of the departed who is no longer with us to tell us what their wishes are.

Finally, the trappings of death are as numerous as the stars - the style of coffin, the type of wake, open or closed, flowers or donations to various causes, getting the obituary information out, organizing the sympathy cards, who sits in the limousine with Aunt Betty? Who will cater the after wake meal? The logistics of a funeral are every bit as overwhelming as those surrounding a wedding. The oddest thing of all though is that these details are all carried out while the subject has ostensibly moved along to other things.

Personally, I am discovering that as I get older that I find great resonance in the line from the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral spoken by the character Gareth who was a gay bon vivant sort of fellow when he said that he much preferred funerals to weddings because he always preferred social events the likes of which he at least had an outside chance of taking part in. It is an club to which we all will be admitted for certain.

At a funeral I attended recently for the relative of a dear friend, I had the feeling that funerals provide a sense of closure which seemed to comfort me. Then I began to wonder if I was becoming like Maude in the movie Harold and Maude: would I soon start to wander in on the funerals of strangers just so I could be part of an event that celebrates a person’s life. I’d be standing there as a professional funeral celebrant with my bright red umbrella amid the sea of black umbrellas amidst the falling rain in the grayness of a cemetery. I’d move easily among the mourners and offer very generic types of kindnesses, and mean them even though I didn’t know the subject in the coffin.

“And how did you know poor so-and-so?” they would ask me with kind eyes, looking ato me for one more connection to their dearly departed, to which I would respond, “Well, I didn’t in fact know your brother-husband-son-daughter-wife-sister, but I saw the funeral procession and I am never one to pass up a chance to say goodbye to anyone. And besides as the poet John Donne wrote, ‘Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in all mankind.’ Don’t you feel that is true?” And thus the dialogue would begin.

I don’t know if one can make a living as a professional mourner but there are some advantages if one could. For one thing, selecting clothing as I go off to work each morning would be simple. Black on black with a white shirt with black dress shoes, maybe a black rain coat or overcoat for the winter months. For another thing, as a sincere mourner, I would be providing a service for those people who may not have many mourners. It would not be as some sort of scam but as an extension of the fact that I do believe that each man’s death diminishes me, so why shouldn’t I act on that impulse? And if I truly feel this way, why shouldn’t I celebrate the deaths of countless strangers as I go through this life?

Still, even if no one would pay for such a service, I might consider it as a sort of avocation, a hobby if you will, with the design of bringing importance to each life that leaves this world. It’s odd, but no one seems to think twice about strangers sharing in one’s joy when a new baby is brought home from the hospital. People – strangers even – would feel compelled to touch my wife’s belly when she was carrying each of our children. We received the best wishes from people we hardly knew when they were born. Why does this idea of wishing others consolation when a loved one leaves seem so odd to us?

“Tell me about Henry,” I would say to the grieving widow, and the storytelling could begin in earnest. “Why I remember when Henry was…” and on and on. Maybe as a bartender or psychoanalyst offers the comfort of a stranger’s objective ear, I would offer the fresh meat of an audience who never knew Henry and was ripe for all those stories that seemed so worn among familiar ears. Then Henry would be every bit as much alive at his funeral as he was when he really was alive. I in turn would come away richer for knowing Henry, at least in the abstract and in the most distilled form.

Oh, I know that the conditions surrounding one’s death affects the type of funeral one has. The toughest funerals I have ever attended have been for children for example. Drunk driving deaths, murders, SIDS deaths: how does one make sense of death in light of these sorts of circumstances? But you know there never seems to be a shortage of grief in this world, and as a professional funeral attendant I would grieve. Shared grief is shared pain and shared pain makes the load seem lighter if even for a moment. Some people might find it offensive that a stranger would want to share in their grief. Here in America and especially in New England where good fences make good neighbors, one does the most personal things in private and death is the most personal thing for many. Still most funerals are open to the public. I mean the reason one has a funeral is so that it can be open to outsiders.

There is a concept among some Native Americans of this idea of “sitting with” the grieving person when a person dies. It is sort of similar to the Judaic tradition of sitting shiva without the formality. It is not the same as the typical Anlgo-American’s idea of baking or making a casserole for a friend when they lose someone. This is wrapped up in the great American work ethic of being busy to make the grief go by almost unnoticed. With some Native Americans the idea is that one is simply present at this time of grief. Our presence shows no great purpose or intent. It’s an idea that conveys the dizzying belief that we are not alone no matter how much we think we are. It is almost zen-like in its approach to grief and I have witnessed it first hand. Just being present to another in life or in death is the greatest gift we can offer another short of offering our own lives. It is a gift to be a witness to another; it is affirming that they mattered, that they counted. This is a sign that we are social creatures and that we need each other to live and die properly.

So I am considering business cards with a title that reads, “PROFESSIONAL FUNERAL ATTENDANT” which I would hand out to people at funerals, with a web site and everything. That might seem a bit too corporate and profit driven though. Perhaps advertising should happen by word of mouth, or better yet, word of heart since people always relate to things that come from the heart in earnest.

None of us gets out of this world alive, it’s true but we can at least make the process a bit more humane for funerals are nothing if not a platform for the most important type of storytelling that we do. No one likes to deal with the grief and the loss. But the stories told at funerals remind us that all of our lives are comprised of one story after another. Why shouldn’t every person have witnesses to these stories in death, just as in life? Besides, who is to say that these stories don’t continue to grow after we have moved on?
Let’s make a gentleman’s agreement right now, shall we? I will come to your funeral and tell the crowded room about what a great blessing you were to this world, if you will come to mine and say the same about me. Is it a deal?

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