I grew up in a family that wasn’t big on attending funerals. It’s not that they don’t care. On the contrary, they care deeply, but they are very clear on their understanding of life’s eternal nature. So much so that they really, truly view “death” as a blip on the radar that we might not get at this moment, but will someday completely understand. Which sort of renders a funeral service incongruous.
I am reasonably clear on the eternal life bit, but my heart lives here, along with the other broken hearts remaining after the death of a loved one. Broken-but-still-beating hearts that often benefit from the ritual and ceremony and community of attending a service. Funerals can be heart-wrenching or heart-lifting. A good funeral is both. And I am now firmly in the never-misses-a-funeral-if-she-can-help-it camp.
The first funeral I remember attending was when I was in my early 20’s, for one of my college classmates, Russell. We always thought he was much older than we were, because he regaled us with these amazing tales that would have been impossible for someone our age. Some of these feats would have been impossible for a person of any age. We might have been known to mock him for this particular behavior, but he was also preeminently reliable, the sort of friend who was good to have in your corner. Maybe he was an old soul, or maybe he really was older, or maybe that’s just what he wanted us to think. Maybe he somehow sensed that his heart would give out long before his years, so he imagined a life beyond its natural borders. In any event, I happened to be traveling to Houston on business that week, so I tacked the weekend onto my travel plans for the funeral of an old, young friend. I attended more because it was convenient than because it was compelling. Besides, funerals are excellent occasions to connect with long-lost friends. As the Lyle Lovett song says, “I went to a funeral. Lord, it made me happy seeing all those people that I ain’t seen since the last time somebody died.” It does put the fun in funeral, but that’s not why I’m a funeral-attending convert.
Funerals can be a healing place, but they are hard. So first, a word on guilt: SushiTuesdays is a guilt-free zone. I will never tell you to miss your favorite yoga class for a funeral, because – believe me – I know that practice can be both grounding and sacred. There are a thousand reasons not to attend a funeral, and pretty much all of them are valid. Say, for example, your four-year-old niece has a ballet recital that day, or your nephew is pitching for his high school team. Go watch the little ballerina! Cheer for the baseball player! They need you now, and the dead guy will still be dead tomorrow. And the day after that. I’ve got news – even after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, especially after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, the family of the dead one will appreciate your love notes, a handful of tulips or a large lasagna. There are so many ways and times to show support and encouragement, and attending the funeral is only one of them.
I attend funerals because people showed up to honor Sam at his funeral, and their presence was a gift to me and my kids. I didn’t know quite how many to expect when I was planning my husband’s funeral, and by “planning” I mean staring into space and nodding/shaking my head numbly in response to the questions of my many friends who did all the actual work of writing an obituary, confirming the date of the service, planning the service itself, printing programs, and coordinating the catering, the florist and the rentals for the reception. I talked to the cemetery and the rabbi. My friends did everything else.
You never know exactly how many to expect for a funeral, because there’s no RSVP protocol. By the time all those people show up, it’s too late to set out extra chairs and order more sandwiches, so it helps to have an estimate, even if you don’t have a clue. The element of suicide, of course, often has a repelling effect, and it was entirely possible that I would be left alone with dozens of turkey sandwiches and ten gallons of Chinese chicken salad at the end of the day.
The rabbi specifically asked me which chapel to reserve, and this was one of the few questions on which I had a definite opinion. He explained that there were three chapels, seating 100, 200 or 300 people, respectively. Before I could respond, however, there were a couple family members who answered the question. They knew Sam as the little brother, the baby, but they didn’t know him as a professional. They didn’t see him as a grown man, a father, a confidante, and they didn’t understand his community impact. They were deeply embarrassed by his suicide. Simultaneously, and with the same dismissive hand gesture, both of them stated that there would not be more than 100 people there.
The rabbi turned to me and waited for my answer. I shook my head, Give me the one for 300.
On the day of the funeral, I could not see people arriving from where I was waiting in the secluded alcove. I did not know whether the large chapel was empty or full. I could see a handful of my nearest and dearest seated in the front rows. They were all the support I needed. The rabbi called me to the podium to give the first eulogy, and as I walked toward the microphone, I lifted my eyes to see the pews. I gasped. The chapel for 300 was not just full, it was overflowing, standing room only, with more people filling the sidewalk outside. They had come to celebrate Sam’s life and to mourn his death. They were classmates, colleagues and clients. Friends and neighbors. Cousins in abundance. They had come, and the biggest chapel wasn’t big enough to hold them all. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their presence. To be perfectly candid, a little bitchy part of me also thought, I told you so. But mostly, I was grateful. The fact of all those present was no small consolation, an affirmation of Sam’s life and his kindness.
In the midst of the day that was largely a blur, I can vividly remember only a few faces. I suppose I could look back at the guest book (assuming I could find it in its dust-covered box in the chaos that is my garage), but it doesn’t matter. Not everybody is comfortable going to funerals. The communion of hearts happens in a multitude of ways, and that’s a beautiful thing.
I’ve attended several funerals in the last six months, including services for a teenager, a young woman, and my own father-in-law. These sorts of sudden, tragic, altogether-too-soon deaths often draw a large attendance at the memorial service. In fact, my clearest recollection from Russell’s funeral was fact that the procession went on for miles. Literally. It’s probably true that some people (and a few ambulance-chasing lawyers) are there to watch the train wreck, but most people come because their presence is the most important gift they can offer that day. I believe that these types of funerals draw crowds simply because it requires that many hands to hold so much heartbreak. Indeed, we cannot make sense of the senselessness.
So instead, I leave the garage in its current state of disarray, neglect the dog’s morning walk, and forgo yoga. I dress in black and show up.
Light and strength.