Thursday, June 09, 2011

Other People's Funerals

I went to a funeral last night. It was at my church, and the choir (of which I'm a part) was singing an anthem. Some of my friends knew the deceased and I wanted to be there for them. These at least were the reasons I gave myself for going. Yet I also felt drawn there, somehow; drawn by something bigger than these reasons, which, serviceable though they are, could still be written off by a person with a busy schedule and an advanced degree in rationalization. I wanted to go. I needed to. And I wasn't completely sure why.

We sang a song during communion that I remembered from my days as a youngster at church camp--the kind that has accompanying hand motions. I am not generally comfortable with such things, but the singing...the familiar melody, the words known so well that they spill from the mouth without a thought...opened something in me. I am not a crier, but I was doing my damnedest to sniffle my way through without completely sobbing. And then I looked down at the program in my hands and saw the date. June 8th. And I remembered.

My uncle committed suicide on June 8th last year, after a lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder. He was cremated, so there wasn't a funeral per se for a while. There was a 'memorial service' shortly after his death, but it was at an unfamiliar (to me) evangelical-to-the-nth-degree church. The pastor took the opportunity, in his sermon, to remind us that suicides go to hell, and especially "unsaved" suicides like my Uncle Jim. It was not an experience of closure. I did not leave feeling held and supported. It was not healing. It left me feeling angry, hurt and saddened.

In a way, this "other person's funeral" yesterday offered me a chance to grieve an old (but not so very old) wound in a familiar place, with people I love and who love me. It served as a Jahrzeit, the Jewish custom of remembering the anniversary of a death with prayers and blessings. Last night we buried Dee's ashes in the plot outside the church, and various people stepped forward to throw handfuls of earth into the grave. It was a poignant reminder that funerals are not so much for the dead as for the living; that even in small actions, like the willingness to dirty our hands to remember a friend who has passed, we stand together. We do not go out to the grave alone. We do not struggle to carry the coffin by ourselves. There are pallbearers; there is a procession out to the graveyard. And as we say during the Episcopal burial service, "Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia."

No comments: