Monday, June 10, 2013

Reflections on Eight Funerals

The first funeral I remember attending was on my mission. My companion and I had an investigator, Chris, who was a week away from baptism. Chris was wheelchair-bound and somewhat sickly, but seemed healthy enough that we were shocked when we visited one day and his brother, with whom he shared an apartment, told us that Chris had died the day before. We got permission to leave our area to attend the funeral at a nearby AME church, where we were the only white faces in attendance. After a very brief eulogy the pastor announced, "I'm not here to talk about Chris -- I'm here to preach to you!" before launching into the type of sermon that made ladies in the front row stand up while fanning themselves and men call out from the pews "That's right!" and "Preach it!" That night, when a zone leader asked how the funeral was I said something like, "It was a waste of time. Chris definitely wasn't there." Looking back I'm slightly ashamed of that attitude, which combined a self-righteous blend of missionary zeal and disappointment.

My next funeral, the first that really struck home, was of my grandpa, my mom's dad. His health had been waning for years, and I was actually a little surprised when I returned from my mission in 2007 that he was still around. He actually lived for another two years after. When he died, the old cliche was true that at least he was no longer suffering, but it still hurt. I remember the stories he used to tell us, and the way he always found ways to keep busy (and to keep the grandkids busy when we visited. I pulled many a chickweed from his lawn). A few months after the funeral I met the woman who would soon be my wife. I wish he could have met her.

Not long after my marriage came the death of a young cousin; one I hadn't known particularly well besides thinking that he'd been kind of a pest when I was a kid. Now I wish I'd have spent a little more time talking to him or playing with him instead of just shooing him away. That time, the hurt wasn't mine but I could see it on the faces of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, the fundamental unfairness of losing someone so young.

In May 2012 I was watching the General Conference Priesthood Session when I got a text from my brother telling me that my old friend Jeff had died earlier that day in a skiing accident. Jeff and I had been best friends as kids, and though we hadn't kept in very good contact for the last half decade, learning about his death was in some ways worse than my grandpa's. Grandpa hadn't been a surprise, but Jeff was my age. He played guitar in a Christian rock band. When I got the text I left the broadcast to drive around aimlessly for a while. The funeral, at least, was nice, reuniting the surprisingly diverse group of neighborhood kids who had once been friends in our Colorado neighborhood: There was me, the Mormon kid, Jeff, the Lutheran, as well as a Catholic, a non-denominational Christian, and an atheist. Jeff was a committed believer; I like to think he would have felt some peace at the end.

Just months after Jeff's funeral my grandma, my dad's mom, died. Her health had declined precipitously over the last few months, due I think to complications from emphysema. Her children and grandchildren had been putting in shifts to take care of her (including, I should mention, my mom, who had also spent many hours helping her dad in his last years). When grandma started to go they were able to get the word out quickly enough that all of her kids were there. The day she died my wife and I, living a state away, had purchased tickets to a Bill Cosby show. Let me tell you, Cosby mighty not be as spry as he was on the 80s cassettes I once listened to, but he has a gift for making it seem as though, in a room of five thousand people, he's talking directly to you. Someday Bill Cosby will die too, and I will be sad. In any case, we attended my grandma's funeral just a few days after my birthday.

Four months later my wife's grandma on her mother's side died. The last two funerals had seen my wife charged with standing by me and supporting me. This time the situation was reversed and I had to do the supporting (and, having given props to my mom, I also have to mention my mother in law, who drove from Utah to Arizona many times around those months to assist her parents). I only got to meet that grandma once before her health started failing, back on my wedding day. She was delightful.

Then my aunt died. She'd had a hard life, but in the last few years seemed to be at peace with where she was. She was a deeply spiritual and eccentric lady--the first time she met my wife she decided, for some reason, to "curse" us with twins. That hasn't happened yet, but who knows? My wife and I, along with my parents, had actually just recently visited her at her home in Colorado. Apparently not long after she visited the doctor for some relatively minor aliment and was told that her kidney or liver was failing and she only had months to live. I couldn't find a picture of her, unfortunately.

And that brings us to today. A year after my last birthday and my grandma's funeral, my wife's grandfather, on he father's side, passed away last week. This grandpa was the man who sealed me to my wife over two and a half years ago. His funeral was easily the best-attended of all of them, including general authorities and former missionaries from his time as a mission president. The highlights, however, were the fond stories told by his sons and grandchildren.

I think I'm supposed to have a conclusion, some unifying idea to tie all these anecdotes together. Here's one: I'm tired of funerals. Death is exhausting, stressful, painful, and generally not fun (for the living; I can't speak for the deceased). If those of you who know me could abstain from dying for a while, I'd appreciate it. Especially around my birthday, if I can be a little selfish. I also can't help but think that in spite of this cluster of funerals I haven't yet experienced real loss: no parents, no siblings, no current close friends. Many, many others have experienced far worse, including people closer to the ones I've written about here. No doubt the worst is yet to come someday (sorry mom and dad, but I intend to outlive you both). On the brighter side, funerals also tend to bring out some of the most inspiring faith and love in people, and that's been nice to experience. Probably being around death is the only way to really appreciate and understand certain things about life. Well, that's a semi-profound sounding sentence, so let's end there.