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.