Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Family Funeral

I attended a family funeral today. As a Southerner and a former-Baptist, I realized in comparing this funeral to the last one I attended (for a gay Catholic man) that I am very familiar with the rites of passages such as weddings and funerals in the Baptist world, but that I am like a misplaced person at funerals and weddings in other faiths. It is a bit confusing, not to mention, hard on the knees, depending on which sect you move from and to. Having lived through the 1980s and the deaths of countless friends during the height of the AIDS crisis, I even got used to seeing traditional services followed by gay services where all the "true and chosen" family of friends came to celebrate the life and the end to the struggles of our dearly departed.

Today, I watched from the sidelines because my mom has limited mobility and had to be seated away from the rest of the family. We were allowed into the sanctuary before the main family arrived, so the coffin was still open and my uncle was visible from where we sat. Shortly before the family entered the church, the funeral directors came in and removed the spray of flowers from the coffin, neatly folded the lining into the coffin and then closed the lid for the service. The choir filed in and the members took their seats and then the family was escorted in to a melody played on a church organ. I remarked later that I always feel like the organs in Baptist churches are tuned to "calliope" because their music always sounds to me like what I hear at the state fair or when a carousel is in motion. But then, that is just me.

As the family filed in, we all stood to honor them and then were seated for a series of songs and sermons that were delivered by people who knew my uncle better than I did. There were the obligatory frowning Baptist ministers who managed to say things of great gravity and sadness. One even recounted, inappropriately, in my opinion, how he may have heard the last words of the man we were mourning. Thank goodness, there was a third minister who presented a couple of sweet stories about my uncle that had us laughing with tears in our eyes.

After the sermons and the song, the funeral directors took the flowers aside, removed the spray from the coffin and carried it and the coffin out to the hearse for the trip to the burial site. We rose again as the family left the church and as my grieving aunt passed by, she hugged my mother in a very touching gesture. We then joined in the procession to the outside with the family. The rest of the congregation followed along behind us.

I didn’t know the hymns that had been selected for this service. On the other hand, there was something very familiar about them, in their delivery or tone. At the Catholic funeral I had attended before this one, the music was accompanied by guitar and recorder and the song lyrics had been updated to represent a more "current" church. It sounded to me that Monty Python had a hand in writing the lyrics. But then, that is just me.

We continued from the church to the cemetery where there was a short graveside service in the late afternoon heat. After the service, people milled around to introduce themselves and to remark on how much someone had changed in the past thirty years or how much they remembered my dad and his stories. I was able to meet some people whose names I knew from genealogy work, but whom I had never met.

As is traditionally the case, the family and closest friends returned to the house for a "visit" with one another. Our family used to have yearly family reunions, but after my dad’s death in 1994, the attendance became spotty and we eventually ceased to meet each year. This was one of the first times we had seen each other in about five years. We chatted with one another for a while and then the reality of what had happened began to sink in for my sweet cousins. I knew then that their time to grieve had arrived and I said my goodbyes. We had made plans, before I left, for a Thanksgiving gathering so that we will not be strangers in the future.

On the drive home, the sun was a huge orange ball hanging not far above the treetops as I rolled down the highway with my window down. I needed the air to let myself process the emotions of recalling my own dad’s funeral, the sadness of seeing my aunts and uncles getting older and older and the realization that all things from this place must pass. I also needed to breathe in to remind myself that the old feelings of guilt and not belonging to this family that had resurfaced were not real. I may not be like them in every way, but we can finish each other’s sentences if we need to do so and we have a litany of stories from generations back that we can all recite. Someone needs to record it all, including the feeling of this day, even if it is my own slanted version.



Blogger Vickie said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. And, yes, you should record it. It would be especially valuable to add to your genealogy work. I finally posted what I know of mine on my web site and seemed to have promptly forgotten about it. I do, every so often, run through census data to try to find my grandmother and grandfather. No luck in that department.

9/22/2005 05:54:00 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

I'm again, so sorry for your loss - but your observations of this most vulnerable of human conditions - grieving - is wonderful. You have captured perfectly how so many things get tied together and tangled in the mind when we lose someone we loved, and how even if only for the day, or a few days surrounding the funeral sometimes, death is a leveling force, and makes us realize what's really important.

It is a beutiful entry,

9/23/2005 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger Vickie said...


I think your comments are playing peek-a-boo with me. This wasn't here the day after I posted it and now it is...

9/26/2005 09:49:00 PM  
Blogger Mary Ann said...

If you have a chance, read Washington Irving's essay "Rural Funeral."

It's long but about 3/4 of the way through you'll find: "The sorrow for the dead is the only sorrow from which we refuse to be divorced. Every other wound we seek to heal- every other affliction to forget; but this wound we consider it a duty to keep open- this affliction we cherish and brood over in solitude... Then weave thy chaplet of flowers, and strew the beauties of nature about the grave; console thy broken spirit, if thou canst, with these tender, yet futile tributes of regret; but take warning by the bitterness of this thy contrite affliction over the dead, and henceforth be more faithful and affectionate in the discharge of thy duties to the living."

The essay is gentler and more beautiful than this brief quote suggests. I found it surprisingly comforting when my son died.

9/30/2005 09:21:00 AM  

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