“What would you like me to say about you when I preach at your funeral?” my pastor asked me recently. He was dead serious. This is a once in a lifetime offer.
I can say honestly, I had no idea what to say but my heart was warmed. His request left me feeling cared for, if not a little off balance.
What can I say about my life, any life for that matter? They get all jumbled up. I’ve lived my life like the old movie films were shown; one frame at a time. I never noticed how much each frame differed from the one following or preceding it because the frames flew by so quickly.
I know this: I’m never the same man for long. I have changed so much over the years. In one instance, in just over a ten year period, I changed dramatically. At sixteen, Arty, Jigger and I broke into an auto accessory store to get parts to keep Jigger’s old junk running. At twenty- six I knelt piously before the Bishop of New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, as he laid hands on my head, ordaining me to perform to perform the holy rites of the church. And then too, as time goes by, even the changes themselves will morph character traits in ways I would never have expected in myself. By the way this is not all bad. Actually, I grew more patient as I got older. Too bad it took so long.
Eulogies or sermons at funerals are profiles in how people wish others to see how they lived. Certain kind of rites tend to emphasize the deceased’s personal achievements and his or her contributions to society. They’re a sort of commentary on personal and civic virtue. Other rites highlight the quality of the relationships the deceased enjoyed with friends and family – like having been a loving wife or husband, devoted son, or caring daughter. Such emphases are necessarily sum totals of a life, broad generalities, running all the frames by us quickly enough that we see only broad sweeps with little detail.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that when Craig first asked me the question, my instinctive reaction was to do a little psychological posturing; rummaging through some of the old frames of my life to see which ones might show better. As picking frames became increasingly selective, I could see how I was only trying to look good –– so much so that even I could see the narcissism in what I was doing. I decided it was in everyone’s interest to have Greg to say whatever he wanted with no holds barred.
I believe that people are far more disposed to feel endeared to the deceased when they hear unvarnished stories of him or her having been caught in the act of being themselves. When our unpolished humanity is revealed, those kinds of no-pretense moments that just happen, they can change the mood of a funeral remarkably. One vignette that I recall, portrayed the deceased having worn different colored socks to a formal dinner where he was booked as the speaker. I remember another where a deceased mom, a bride’s mother, with a thousand things on her mind, once placed all the newly printed wedding invitations on top of the car while fetching her keys. She forgets them, and in the rear view mirror drives off and watches the invitations scatter like fall leaves
I have observed, both as an officiant at a funeral or sitting among mourners in a church, how the congregation will often fidget with service bulletins or shift in their seats as the deceased is lavished with praise for his or her virtues – which may have been justly deserved.
In recent years, it’s more common in churches and memorial services to have family members “say a few words” about loved ones as part of the ritual. Provided they don’t go on too long, it’s remarkable to see the energy among mourners increase as a relative is fondly roasted. It’s the messy human traits with which mourners immediately identify. Just being human will endear mourners to the deceased in ways that recitations of accomplishments, status or even good works, won’t. You can see how mourners, during these recitations, were respectfully attentive but emotionally absent. As the deceased is presented as a person, ears pick up.
A pinch of salt adds real zip to even the finest cuisine.
My closest friends have no illusions about my quirks and shortcomings. It frees me to be at ease with my foibles enough not to feel driven to pretend otherwise. My great aunt was prickly on this score and dismissed her neighbor this way. “Mrs. O’Doran puts on airs,” she would snort, throwing her nose in the air, defiantly.
As we’ve talked together over the years, our pastor, Greg, Jo and I have shared many intimacies. We have similar views on many spiritual matters but especially one: that telling our stories is the royal route by which we facilitate the healing of many kinds of wounds, especially our losses. Storytelling is a way we make our way across that devastating void the death of a loved one leaves.
Remember the bedtime rituals of your childhood? I do. I was told it was time for bed. I didn’t want to go, I hadn’t finished all the things I wanted to. The declaration of bedtime was never the right time but regardless of my feelings, it was to be that way.
The ritual was always the same: go upstairs, brush my teeth, go to the bathroom, put on PJ’s and get into bed. One of my parents promised they’d soon be up be up to read me a story. This always sweetened the pot.
When Greg left, I imagined my funeral in a similar way, a little like the bedtime of my childhood I resisted bedtime, like I resist the implications of my funeral: it’s not the right time; I have more to do. When the end of the day arrives, the knowledge that people who know and love me will tell stories about me –– and on me, too –– I find comforting.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.