My Catholic grandmother passed away recently and I was chosen to be a pallbearer along with other of her adult grandchildren. I wasn't particularly close to her and knew next to nothing about this side of my family. There were awkward greetings as I struggled to introduce my fiancee to family members whose names I could not quite recall now that I found a desperate need to. I worked out a deal with her after a couple of such greetings. I would play the uncouth and absent minded partner that would continuously forget to introduce her. Then, she would take the initiative in introducing herself as she playfully chastised me for my lack of manners and the two would exchange names, thereby relieving me of the of the embarrassment of forgetting. It worked quite well as we navigated the room of familiar strangers, exchanging smiling "hello's" that quickly turned to awkward seriousness. This seemed imposed by the setting of the funeral home and encouraged by the funeral director's demeanor throughout.
From the funeral home the next day, the casket, corpse, and caravan traveled to a local Catholic church. I was eager to hear the eulogy of my father's mother, hoping to gain some new understanding or insight into her life. The priest began his eulogy, speaking about her in very general terms and mentioning children and spouses who preceded her in death. There were a few mentions of other relatives that cared for her as she withered under cancer's assault. This lasted all of maybe a few minutes and was very somber and subdued, as it was at the Wake. Then the subject of the eulogy shifted not unexpectedly, but rather dramatically.
Jesus Christ. The priest began quoting bible verses and speaking about Jesus; what Jesus did, what Jesus said. Jesus' life became the sole focus of the ceremony for the next half an hour or so. I leaned over and whispered to my fiancee "are we burying my grandmother or are we burying Jesus?" Even when a couple of family members gave a speech at the podium, one was simply a reading from the bible. I was disappointed that a good opportunity to reflect on the recently deceased was supplanted by silly, ambiguous lessons and parables from the bible.
She was buried at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery here in St. Louis. There was a short ceremony where the priest again spoke about Jesus and his life. We were then quickly ushered out to make way for the next funeral and I left wondering what the point of all this was. I had hoped to learn something about my grandmother's life during all of this but I didn't know her any better in death than I did in life. There were no interesting stories told, no anecdotal gems that a family member had sequestered for years, nothing really about her at all.
On the drive home I shared my complaints with my fiancee. At my funeral, I didn't want people shuffling zombie-like about, talking in hushed monotones, offering each other canned phrases of comfort as they occasionally approached my corpse to judge how I appeared in death. Or how well the funeral home did my makeup. Or just to be certain that I was indeed dead. I find it macabre. No. I want a party. I want people to get drunk (responsibly, of course) and scream and shout, cry and laugh, play some music, remember the old times and celebrate my life, not mourn my death. Of course, I will be dead and not likely care what the mood is at my own farewell. So then, I suppose what I really want is to be able to have that atmosphere at all funerals. When my friends and family pass away, I would love to celebrate their life with smiles and laughter and leave the mourning for the days ahead without their presence in my life. I would like to hear those stories that you never knew and never would know without such an open and candid environment.
I think we would be happier mortals to accept death as part of life and not some unjust tragedy that befell an unlucky victim. It almost seems an act, a public display we put on to show that we are being respectful and dutifully sad. I would like to think that we could happily reminisce about a life lived that touched us directly with respect and an appropriate amount of sadness. Also, we could ignore the banal worshiping of a possibly non-existent, Jewish zombie that dominates our rituals currently.