Death and Funerals

“I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”

Mark Twain

Mark Twain couldn’t have been more misguided. My retort to the legendary Twain is, “never miss a funeral.” Caring for the dead is one of the most human of any possible endeavor. I spent nearly fifteen years as part of the funeral industry and have seen emotions of grief, anger, anguish, fear, frustration, sadness, depression, resentment, anxiety, relief, empathy, care, concern, sympathy, kindness, and so many others. Death is final. It conjures up past regrets, dashes hopes for the future, and quite often creates unending strife within families. One of the most important promises to and from an American Soldier is to never leave our dead behind. Because of the impact of death, our funeral rites are incredibly impactful. Funerals are as old as human culture itself and are dated back to the Neanderthal age of over 300,000 years ago.1

Because of my experience in the funeral industry, dealing with messy probate matters as an attorney, and by personally ministering to several dying people, I believe I have unique insight into death, dying, and funerals. Death is as much a part of life as are birth and living. Due to its finality, though, death is perhaps the most difficult life event anyone has to deal with. It may feel more complicated prior to a loved one’s death, particularly if it is slow death, since you need to deal with the thoughts, fears, and pain of both the loved ones and the dying person. But in actuality, I think it is much more difficult after death; therefore, the funeral becomes a seminal event for the survivors.

Let’s face it, no one wants to go to a funeral. Some are more difficult than others. The worst are always for young people – those whose lives seemed to offer so much promise for the future. Next are when a spouse dies. No one can properly prepare for that loss. Then there are funerals that provide some sense of relief to the survivors. Almost all, though, are sad. I believe that going to a funeral, or at least a visitation, is one of the most kind and compassionate acts that we can do as human beings. It can also serve as a personal reminder of the things that are most important in life.

I recently attended a memorial service for my wife’s cousin’s husband. I met the man perhaps only once or twice, but his memorial was impactful for me. Because of this recent experience, I wanted to share stories of other funeral experiences that highlight my belief of their importance. The first is intensely personal because it was for my mother. It was what I consider a rather eclectic funeral. No one will forget the blind pug, Winston, foraging around the tables for scraps at the reception! But that was her wish, so Winston attended. Who is going to say no to a dead person?

Winston saying goodbye.

The thing I remember most were the people who came. Almost everyone who had been somewhat close to me and my family were there. There were a few exceptions that we expected to attend, but did not. We silently remembered those. What struck me the most, though, were two of my high school friends who showed up. Pat, Jim, and I were incredibly close friends in high school and college, but we lost touch, especially after we all moved away from the Twin Cities after college. I went to Germany, Pat to Oklahoma, and Jim took a job in the Milwaukee area. Due to the distance, it was a very rare occurrence to find us all in Minnesota at the same time. But they were there. I can’t even articulate how much this meant to me, but I will never forget it.

A second example was when a co-worker’s mother died. At the time she was a former co-worker, but we had worked together for about seven years. We were never particularly close, but interacted at work for a long time. We chatted regularly about the difficulties she encountered while caring for her aging and infirm mother. Lois and I were the only civilian employees in our small section, so we were the only continuity as our military comrades transferred in and out. Because of that we shared a common bond.

Lois is African American and is about ten years older than me. She retired about two years prior to her mother’s death, but we remained in contact through Facebook. When I learned that her mother passed, I immediately searched the obituaries for the funeral information. On the day of the funeral, I left work early and drove to North Baltimore. When I entered the funeral home for the visitation, I was not particularly surprised at the demographics. I was surprised to find that I was the ONLY white person there. That, in itself, was a very interesting experience, but I digress.

I signed the visitor log and started making my way to the casket. Lois spied me and rushed over to greet me with a hug. She proceeded to introduce me to her kids, grandchildren, uncles, cousins, and all of her relatives. In fact, she took me around the visitation like I was visiting royalty! I was so embarrassed to be treated that way, but I was also humbled by how much my visit seemed to mean to Lois. I will likely never see Lois again, but I will never forget her mother’s funeral. I doubt, too, that she will ever forget me.

My last story is also about a former co-worker. Shortly after John retired, he and his wife moved to rural South Carolina into their dream retirement home. John’s retirement was tragically cut short due to cancer. Because of their new home, John and Jan were quite far away from friends and former co-workers. Since John and I were close – he was a great mentor and friend to me – I felt an obligation to attend the funeral, even though I’d recently visited him on his death bed. Like the above examples, John’s funeral was quite impactful for me.

I didn’t know what to expect at John’s funeral. I knew his wife, but had never met his son. What I wasn’t expecting were other co-workers. Yet, four other people had taken the time and expense to travel to the funeral. Not only is that a wonderful testament to John, but I can’t put a price on the respect I gained for those individuals who put their families, personal time, needs, and desires aside – on Easter weekend – to attend John’s funeral.

It was a very small wake and funeral. There was family, one neighbor, and some of John’s son’s friends. Very intimate. I can say that they were all touched at those of us who traveled a long distance. John’s son gave a heartfelt eulogy, and somehow did so without breaking down. There was a receiving line as we exited the funeral home. When I greeted John’s son, he gave me a big bear hug. Then he started to cry. Just the realization of how much his father meant to me – and the others from his former job – caused him to finally break down. We chatted for quite some time outside of the funeral home before we all simply had to leave. Even though it cost more than an insignificant amount of time and money, I am more than glad I was able to attend. I think I got as much out of it as John’s family.

In all my personal experiences, and in my work and studies of funerals, the tradition I like the best are the New Orleans jazz funerals. It seems that people would actually enjoy attending those funerals. The attendees literally dance through the streets in a funeral parade. According to Eileen Southern in her book, The Music of Black Americans, “on the way to the cemetery it was customary to play very slowly and mournfully a dirge, or an ‘old Negro spiritual’ such as ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ but on the return from the cemetery, the band would strike up a rousing, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ or a ragtime song such as ‘Didn’t He Ramble.’” What a way to go!

So, the next funeral you think you maybe should attend, do it! Even if it isn’t a jazz funeral, you are making a difference in someone’s life. Maybe even your own!

1 Paul Pettitt, When Burial Begins, British Archeology, Issue 66 (Aug. 2002)

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