Funerals

I am waiting in the funeral home foyer, listening to the grandfather clock across from me tick, tick, tick. I am standing with the other pallbearers. The clock’s big hand points to the phrase TEMPUS FUGIT.

I’ve been a pallbearer at three funerals now. When the time comes you lift the casket, marveling at how heavy it is, as if it is lined with lead to make you feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth. The body inside is the person you knew minus what made them them, so why does the entire thing weigh so much? It settles in your hands and you think hard about important subjects, like how stupid you’re going to look if you trip over your own feet.

In a little over a year I’ve become a connoisseur of funerals, which is a lot like drinking shot after shot of vinegar until you can identify specific brands. Funerals are stitched-together affairs, and have so many parts that can go wrong. Songs especially are a minefield. I’ve now heard several of them whose conceit is that they’re being sung by the deceased and whose message boils down to, “It’d be great if you were dead like me.”

Pastors handle funerals with varying degrees of grace. Some have described someone I didn’t recognize, as if they had accidentally grabbed the Cliff’s Notes to someone else’s life. Worst are the ones who see funerals as an opportunity to convert mourners to Christianity, barely stopping short of slapping a GOD IS MY CO-PILOT bumper sticker on the casket.

This all started several years ago with a few funerals, drops of water that foretold the coming rainstorm. Now it feels as if I cannot go a month before I need to pull out my suit and somber tie, the one without crayon drawings of kids riding rockets into outer space. I have so much knowledge I have no use for, and no real knowledge of the heart of the matter. I now know that funerals for those who served in the military are hard: the service is longer, there may be a three-volley rifle salute, and the flag draped over the casket makes it harder to find the handles. And every time — every time — the flag is presented to the family, I lose it.

Like pastors, other people handle death in different ways. The usual Christian clichés give no comfort. “He’s in a better place.” “She’s at peace now.” Sometimes people go beyond clichés when they really shouldn’t. Misty’s grandfather died barely seven months after his wife did. At one point someone said to us, “There was a study, it showed that if someone dies within a year after their husband or wife dies, they were soul-mates,” and I thought of my two grandmothers, both of whom have outlived their husbands by more than a year. People say the most unkind, unthinking things, shoveling words into the empty space the deceased has left.

There are other clichés that are trotted out. “Why do we only all get together when someone dies?” someone always asks, and it’s always asked by those who flee the soonest from the funeral. Then there are those who understand, who hold you for a moment and say, “I’m so sorry.” Those who share their stories and rememberances of the dead, shining a light into parts of their life that you’d never really seen before.

Funerals are all about waiting, as the grandfather clock in the foyer reminds me. It finally chimes ten with muted, rounded tones that might announce the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past. We line up behind the funeral director and file into the chapel.

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5 Comments

  1. Elizabeth
    on March 12, 2009 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful

  2. on March 12, 2009 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    People say the most unkind, unthinking things, shoveling words into the empty space the deceased has left.

    Yeah.

    [And man, I’m so with you on the pallbearing thing.]

  3. on March 13, 2009 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this.

  4. on March 15, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    In my experience the person talked about at their funeral has very little resemblance to the person you knew. Once I realized this, I found it easier to listen to everyone’s stories and kindly thank them for sharing.

    I think death is something that should always make us uncomfortable and we say stupid things when we are uncomfortable.

  5. on March 16, 2009 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Songs especially are a minefield.

    My Mom and I were part of a group from our church who was asked quite often to sing at funerals. It got kinda surreal after a few times. At the same time, I was quite serious about it. It felt like one of those ways I actually could help.

    Worst are the ones who see funerals as an opportunity to convert mourners to Christianity

    Yeah. I’ve seen this happen more than once. Strongly suspected in one case that the people speaking took MUCH liberty in talking about “what he would want.” Made me quite peeved.

    Then there are those who understand, who hold you for a moment and say, ā€œIā€™m so sorry.ā€

    I’m glad to hear this helps. Given that I don’t really have legitimate access to the standard Xtian platitudes these days, it’s about all I really can say. That, and “I’m here.” I do try hard to squelch the need to just say something because it feels like the space needs to be filled.

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