I have always found it strange that people seem to treat funerals like either an excuse for a family reunion or as though it is some intrinsic part in believing the dead have moved on, or something like that. I stand in the room wondering why I am the only one who seems to find it odd to see people holding the hand of a corpse and talking to it as though it were still likely to reply. I feel odd with a body on display and everyone alternating between talking to it or behaving as though it does not exist at all. The contradiction is sort of baffling to me.
There are other rituals like wakes and the ceremonies of a variety of other cultures that for whatever reason, seem to make much more sense to me than what we do with and near our dead.
I also find it sad that ministers so rarely try to make such ceremonies very unique. The Christian ceremonies in this country, in my experience, are usually going to contain about 5 standard passages from the bible. Having read it, I know that there are more beautiful and applicable things to turn to at such times. But somehow many people seem to be comforted by the predictability and repetition while sort of pretending that it is an individual ceremony.
People kept asking me if I wanted to take one more look at the body, get pictures, etc. I just kept looking about as though I suddenly had been placed in an alternate universe in which none of the living people made any sense at all. I can even sort of wrap my brain around them wanting this to help themselves say goodbye, but they seem genuinely disturbed when I do not function via their constructs. They seem to think I am inscrutible.
Why must we view and handle our dead in this country? I do not mean why do some people do so. I can sort of at least guess at that. I mean why is it expected of all of us as the desired path in any nominally christian setting here?
It isn't that it makes me squeemish, really. I don't care in that sense, but I keep thinking "Why would I want to? What possible advantage could be imparted that I cannot better acheive through remembering fond memories and wishing their spirit well in any beyond that may or may not exist?"
Their personhood, to me, was not contained primarily in the flesh of their form. I cannot really fathom that being a necessary goodbye for me when the person I cared about is already long gone from that body. It's like losing a boyfriend and saying goodbye to the love letters he left behind. It's not that I think they shouldn't, just that they seem to find me extrordinarily strange for not having any particular interest in the body of any kind or need to get as many looks in as possible, etc.
I must admit that the people who hold the hand of the body and talk to it like it were still animate do sort of wig me out in a "dear god, that is weird" sort of way, but I file it under "to each his own" and try not to think a lot about it. I personally could sooner see addressing the corners of the room to speak to the dead in the beyond than through that particular method.
I find it much more interesting to talk to the people who are there with no further ties to the dead, no family relationships, no life time friendships, but those who still felt a need to come. This funeral was unusually rich in that regard.
I have been to a lot of funerals at this point, and I do not think I have ever before experienced the people who turned up for my grandfather's at any of those. He had very little in the way of family. He and his siblings had all been left at an orphanage during the depression, and were separated and scattered all over the US over time. He didn't have the huge parcel of cousins and aunts and uncles and neices and nephews that make up the crowds at most funerals. It made it all the more remarkable the people who did come.
There were some of Dorothy's extended family who had not forgotten that he had been everything she needed and done everything he could for her.
And then there were others. They'd worked with my grandfather or whatever and hadn't known him well enough to stay in touch but missed him when he was gone and cared enough to show up and meet the family and tell their stories of why and how they had cared about the man. People who had worked ship yards with him, where he was their welder 30 years earlier who felt drawn to this man or his memory for the rest of their lifetime once he'd moved on, because they found the power of his love so profound. People who had bought property from him and been so impressed with him that they'd wondered of him and hoped the best for him for years afterward and felt the need to say goodbye. How many people that you sold a business to would be so impressed with you as a person that they wondered about you for 40 years, or became your life long friend, and cried for you when you died?
Many of these people hadn't seen this man in over 30 years but felt so close to him and his stories of his family that they had shared when they shared jobs together, that they felt like they needed to attend even when they could barely walk themselves, to share how much it had been apparent that he loved his family and how they wished they had taken the opportunity 30 years earlier to meet them all and develop stronger friendships. That they remembered this man regularly over 30 years of aging and losing their own loved ones for the strength of his love for his family, was so much more valuable, to me, than any body could be.
And so many of the rest just seemed to be missing those stories from strangers. Missing the love this man inspired in these random strangers whose live my grandfather had touched without even knowing that he had, just by being who he was. He was a man that most of us will never meet the likes of in our lifetime. That was apparent from the people who mourned his passing.
I cared about listening to people who wanted more than anything to show up, 30, 40, or more years after losing track of this man, to make sure that his children knew how profound his love for them had been, and how apparent to everyone who knew him in any way, no matter how small. They wanted to tell someone that in 40+ years of life they'd never forgotten that this man fell in love with a beautiful, 13 year old girl, the daughter of the farmer he worked for, and that from that day forward, he'd seen no one else in the world that he could imagine spending his life with. They wanted us to know that they had all seen this, every day in this man's face and his stories. They wanted us to understand that he was their hero in all those years. They wanted to meet his children. They envied this man, not because he had a dime to his name most of the time or societal stature, but because he accomplished more than they ever could just because he loved one woman so much that it shaped who he was every moment of his life, and thus changed the people who knew him every step of the way.
There were hard times, fights, struggles, their share of mistakes, but he never lost sight of the beautiful girl who took his breath away. He did whatever it took to provide for her and take care of her, even through debilitating rheumatoid arthritis that caused the complete deterioration of the bones in her hands, hip fractures, vertebrae collapsing in her neck and a million other problems. Strangers looked in horror at the twisted remains of her hands. But never in all those years did I once see horror in my grandfather's face. In over 60 years of marriage, he spent 40-50 of them caring for the woman he loved and her extremely broken body. Through all those years of being her hands, lifting her in and out of bath tubs, doing everything for her that it took to allow her to remain independent, there was always love and complete devotion in his face when he looked at her. For him she was always the beautiful 13 year old that captured his heart.
How many people can you say such things about? How many marriage would be made stronger by so much pain and responsibility and illness? How many men would cause you to feel a pressing need to attend their funeral just to tell his children how much in 40 years you remember his love for them and how much respect you feel for his memory as a man who changed your life just by who he was?
Those things are priceless to me beyond anything a cold and lifeless hand could possibly contain. Those memories were the value in being there, to me. If there is consciousness beyond death, I know that somehow, he and Dorothy are together now, and no longer in pain. And that is all the closure I will ever need.