It’s inevitable. The years pass; you find yourself attending more and more funerals. Some deaths are expected, simply a matter of time; others come out of nowhere, catch you off balance, cause you to sit down, draw deep breaths while being enveloped by waves of sadness. Most always a chapel funeral service is planned. You clear your schedule and make arrangements. You must attend.
The preliminaries are almost always the same. You wait on line to sign the “guest” book, necessary evidence of your presence. All wish to be credited for caring and coming. Next, you locate the line that formed and moves slowly toward the surviving spouse and close family members. This must be a total blur for them as people pass by, hug and kiss, then offer a few words of condolence. Depending upon the circumstances, family members may be in shock, quite possibly sedated. What you say barely registers as a procession of faces, some familiar, others not, come into view, then pass on.
Sitting in the chapel, waiting for the service to begin, you gradually enter an altered state of awareness. The scene has changed. The outside world slips away, immediate concerns as well. You’ve been transported to another realm, where ultimate questions are likely to be raised and considered. This is a funeral marking the death of another human being, maybe someone close, perhaps not. But it is also the setting for a conversation you begin with yourself about yourself. As the clergyman offers his or her assessment of a life just ended you can’t help but apply similar measurements to your own.
If you doubt the efficacy of religion it is on just such occasions that it offers some of its most compelling explanations and consolations. Death, we’re told, is not some random event in a purposeless and bleak universe, but the doings of the Divine Being who has given life, a precious gift, but has also limited its duration. While one might consider this unfair of God, mankind must recognize that everyone’s days are numbered so that each of us acts like every moment is precious and endowed with purpose. Furthermore earthy disappearance is but preliminary to heavenly ascension, to a place where daily burdens fall away and where one engages fully with the elevated life of the spirit.
God, moreover, is not unaware of this particular passing and has moreover conferred upon human beings the capacity of memory so that the deceased will long be remembered, will remain an essential link in the endless chain that binds the generations. Such are the explanations and consolations religion provides at such times. This message, combined with sweet, somber and soaring liturgical melodies elevate the moment, offer inspiration, even grandeur.
Then it is time for biography, clergy, family and friends recounting a life just concluded. Invariably such accounts are selective and celebratory. You learn much you never knew, become acquainted with intimate details hitherto kept private. You hear from people who loved him, some holding back tears or pausing for lengthy periods, explaining what was at the core of his being. You discover hobbies, charities, acts of generosity, bravery, career achievements few beyond his immediate circle were aware of. At a funeral many know but a part of the story, were acquainted with the deceased in a limited capacity or for a brief period. At a funeral a much richer portrait emerges, his or her fullest humanity is revealed. In a strange way, he’s come completely alive for the first time – at least for you. There is a reason to mourn.
If you’re paying close attention at a funeral your thoughts are certain to flow back and forth between yourself, the deceased and the moment. The presence of large numbers of mourners will get you wondering whether your passing will “draw” as well. Who can I count on? Who will be around or alive then? Who will be in tears? Who really cares about me and will truly miss me? Has my life been as worthwhile as his? Admittedly, funeral orators have wide latitude, can pick and choose among recollections, can be generous in what they omit. Still, the person accomplished a lot. What have I achieved? Are there still opportunities to bolster my record? There was so much warmth evident and caring expressed here. Isn’t it time I put aside petty disputes, retreated from indifference, reached out to others. However calculated, life is short, opportunities for growth, for love, for joy must not be squandered.
The funeral over, I leave the chapel. It’s sunny, people pass by. I have a pile of dry cleaning in the car I need to bring in. Life resumes.