Saturday, May 23, 2009

Why Have a Funeral?

I did some soul searching the other day, on the way home from Brian's funeral. There were hundreds of people at church for the Mass. I can only imagine how many went to the funeral home during the visiting hours. I know it was a crowd. But of all those who attended, I decided to ask, Why did I go?

Brian wasn't a close friend of mine. I didn't share any stories with him, nor he with me. I didn't know much about his personal life. But, professionally, I knew him to work at a Jewish establishment as a funeral director. He was about as far from the paradigm of the tall, gaunt man in the black suit with the stovepipe hat as you could get. He was warm, gregarious and lit up the room when he entered. If you weren't smiling before, you'd be cracking one soon. If you were grinning before, he'd have you in a full howl in no time flat. Just thinking of his robust stature and his full lower lip jaunting upwards like Jackie Gleason, brings a smile to my heart.

But, to go to his wake? I didn't need to see him. Our last meeting was etched in my memory. I saw Anna across the exhibit floor and went over to say hi. She had been talking to a gentleman in a scooter chair. So I leaned in and introduced myself. He replied, "Ruthann... It's Brian" You could have knocked me over with a feather. Here was a man, aged beyond his years and a third the size of the barrel-chested fellow with the hearty laugh. "Oh, Brian. I didn't recognize you with your new wheels." His eyes were still warm and smiling. He was so gracious to me in my awkwardness. I caught up with him at the restaurant that night and told him how good it was to have him with us. He made me feel like I had just given him the highest of compliments. I so enjoyed that moment. It didn't need supplementation.

To go to the wake would only have been long lines of waiting. And for what reason would I cause his family to stay overtime on their feet to greet yet another they never met? My colleagues were there in a throng. Was it important that I be seen? Not really.

I did, however, go to the Mass. It's not my church, my demomination, or a place where I would be welcomed to receive communion; but I had to go. I didn't go to the funeral home before; just to church. Parking was difficult. I couldn't imagine making room for a procession to fit. And I found my place inside, on the aisle, next to friends.

The high-gloss, shaped coffin had the Irish heart in hands symbol of loving friendship carved into the sides. He was shouldered down the aisle by his pallbearers (who would have ever thought Brian could have ever been carried with such ease?). The altar was full of robed men and altar boys and girls. They would share the readings, the responses and join the cantor in songs. The organist accompanied an Irish tenor, whose voice was impeccable. But this isn't what I came for.

I came for the words. I wanted to hear the priest tell me about Brian's heart and how he was drawn even closer to God in his time companioning cancer. I needed to hear of the priests he lived with and the love they had for him and he for them; of the Sisters who cared for him in his last days.

I came to hear George. My colleague as a funeral director, he serves as a deacon in the Catholic church; I knew he - a dear friend of Brian's - would be welcomed to celebrate the Mass. I knew his words would tell me more about the jolly man who was truly larger than life. And, with deep tenderness and occasional sarcasm, the spirit of the Irishman was opened before us. It was a joy to recall the things I knew, as well as a privilege, to discover Brian in the intimacy of a true friend.

Yes, the church was lovely, the music glorious, the pagentry of rite... ceremoniously excellent. But it could have been anyone's funeral, until the words.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pulling Out the Stops

I've recently experienced my most elaborate memorial service ever (ever is a loooong time). This, much to the design of the bereaved family who had discussed at length, in advance, how they wanted to honor Dad, 46, who had been in a cancer battle for a year. At his request, he was cremated.

The number of people who would attend his funeral immediately cancelled the option of having the service in a funeral home, so they opted for the grand ballroom of the country club. Entering the room, the dance floor had luxurious seating set-up in theatre style. The perimeter of the room had memory stations with food that complimented that part of his life and there were two active barkeeps at either end of the room, serving beer, wine and soda.

Station#1 Childhood- picture boards and memorabilia displayed on the table, accompanied by macaroni and cheese (the favorite of every American kid), served in martini glasses and a fixin's bar, where you could add crumbled bacon, roasted veggies, etc.

Station #2 Hockey- He was an ice hockey referee. There was a vase of pucks, some attire, rule books and photos, along with cheeseburgers, weenie wraps and fixings- the fare at the rink.

Station #3 All Other Sports- Displaying his love of football, baseball, skiing, swimming and poker; along with hoagie wraps (cold cuts, lettuce and tomato, wrapped in a tortilla) and a nacho station with fixings. Everything you would find at a tournament.

Station #4 The Working Man- Displaying his awards and plaques, along with photos of conferences at which he spoke. This being the mainstay of the family, the meat was served at this station. Roast beef and turkey was hand-carved to place on snowflake rolls, with an assortment of condiments, of course.

Station #5 The Marriage-Memory boards and souvenirs of romantic vacations, along with Jamaican Rum Cake, from their wedding day at Montego Bay.

Station #6 The Family Man-A loving display of all of the activities with his 5 children. Because they were the sweet spot of his life, this was the dessert table, loaded with petit fours.

The Celebration itself was his life story. After I told a portion, a person from that timeframe added a personal embellishment. I had a friend from 2nd grade, a high school buddy, someone who hung around with him early in his marriage, a business colleague, a business standards official, a hockey referee, a hockey council official, a goalie who learned life lessons from him, 2 cousins, a step-son, a sister, 2 daughters and the wife. That's right; a total of 16 speakers. I was the frosting that stacked the layers of this incredible life. It lasted 2 hours and had no fluff added in. With an hour reception before and after, this was as momentous and elaborate as many weddings. As folks left, they took with them prayer cards, wildflower seed hearts, tree seedlings to plant, memorial photo brochures and hockey pucks embellished with his photo, name and dates.

There is certainly no doubt he was loved. Friends traveled cross-country to be in this moment. We truly celebrated someone who was larger than life in a fashion that was as extraordinary as the man himself.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Ed, Harvey and the Storeroom Clubhouse

I've spent quite a bit of time lately thinking about Ed. His story is a life lesson to us all.
Ed was my Dad's best friend. They were an odd duo. Ed owned the local liquor store and Dad, a teetotaler, the local funeral home. They would visit in the back storage room of the liquor store over a couple of Dr. Peppers and solve the world's problems. It had to be a great escape for Dad, like a clubhouse he could slip away to and be relieved from the stressors of the day. These are the days of no cell phones; not even a pager; and who's going to think of tracking down Harvey in a liquor store? For Ed, it had to be a welcome break from the quick "How ya doin'?" exchanges of customer traffic.
On Wednesdays, they had lunch together at the Rotary Club meetings and they crossed paths regularly as they worked on advertising campaigns for their businesses and local elections. Dad was a town coucilman and Ed was a great resource for what the town was thinking.
It was at a Rotary dinner-dance that Ed approached Dad at tableside, with a bellyful of joy as he exclaimed, "What a great party!" With that, he fell to the floor and died of a heart attack.
Dad took care of Ed. No doubt it was an emotional time for him; he loved the man. Having anyone else care for him though, would have been out of the question. It was an honor; a sacred duty. To have a stranger care for him, would have been more painful to Dad's broken heart.
The day of his wake the whole town showed up. The funeral home was flooded with a who's who of businessmen, townsfolk and winos. Everyone wandered around in shock, as they expressed what a wonderful guy Ed was.
The irony came as I manned the front sidewalk with Dad. The number of people, though not surprising, actually caused Dad to well-up with emotion as he explained, "Ed was one of the loneliest people in town. He was often sad and told me he didn't think he had any friends. Would you look at this crowd! He never knew."
Take a moment and look around you. Take time to offer a kind word; an encouragement. It may be a starving person who needs their heart fed. Don't wait until the eulogy to express your admiration, commitment or gratitude. Celebrate someone today.