It was one of those Texas days when a norther has just blown through. Tomorrow, later in the day, it will probably be warm again. But today, it was cold and the sharp wind blew the leaves off the trees.
We were at a Methodist church for a funeral. We talked about the man who had died, suddenly and too young. We worried about his widow, a close friend, who has already had too much sorrow in her life. We looked around at the gathered crowd, seeing people we hadn’t seen in years.
What always amazes me at times like this, where the sorrow has come out of nowhere, is the crazy diversity of emotions. It’s as if the human mind can’t linger too long and exclusively on grief; it has to wander.
So, as the minister spoke, I sat and wondered what it must be like to believe in heaven and an afterlife. Imagine thinking someone you loved had joined those who died earlier — and that you would eventually be reunited with them all. It has to be tremendously comforting to think of that life beyond and that reunion. But I don’t believe in that. I used to — and it exercises a strong, nostalgic pull on me — but I don’t any longer. I don’t know what I believe in.
In fact, I worry that I’m such a heathen that I can’t even request “Amazing Grace” to be sung at my own funeral. I worry, too, that people won’t remember to tell all the really great stories about me and they’ll just say something inadequate like, “Well, she was really sweet.” Or, “She was a really good cook,” when everybody knows I always manage to fuck up everything I try to cook, or “She never met a stranger,” which is also a big lie. Or maybe they’ll sing “Little Drummer Boy,” which I loathe, or say chartreuse is my favorite color. Quality control: That’s what you want at your own funeral.
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one worrying about my own eventual service.
“I’ve just decided,” my friend Pat whispered, “that I’m going by the funeral home today and telling them about what I want for my service. I don’t want to leave it up to chance.”
“I get to speak at your service,” I piped up.
Pat gave me a stare like a cold slap. She didn’t say yes or no, but I was going ahead and trying to think of my favorite stories about her. Like the time she stood up on a Southwest Airlines flight and her skirt fell off. Or maybe the time she got so drunk in a swanky restaurant that she locked herself in a restroom stall and couldn’t get out. Or the time we were on a trip to Cape Cod and saw a wedding party pass; everybody else was weeping happily, but Pat screamed out, “Wait! Let me do your prenup!”
“I’ve given Karen a list of people,” Pat said, “who won’t be allowed to come to my funeral. She’ll be standing by the door.”
Great. Karen is one of the toughest people I know. She’s the woman who had the cojones to tell Darrell Royal he can’t putt worth shit. Imagine what kind of damage she can do to lesser mortals. If she has a list of undesirables who are unwelcome at Pat’s funeral, those people don’t have a chance.
Maybe, I thought, turning paranoid, I not only wouldn’t be speaking at Pat’s service. Maybe I wouldn’t even be allowed in. Maybe she was pissed off about something. Or, hell, maybe I’ll predecease her and it won’t be a problem. You never know.
Whatever. We came on a wintry day to mourn a man who died and to grieve for his family and to remind ourselves that we needed to be there for all of them in the long weeks and months that stretched ahead of us.
But we also came to be human and self-involved and neurotic. We came to remind ourselves we still have a life to live. Carpe the rest of it, however long.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)
A colleague is, as I write this, on the way to his elderly aunt’s wake. She is still alive, had planned her wake and didn’t want to miss it. I occasionally ruminate on my own funeral. I’m afraid nobody will show up. I’m thinking of sending a mass e-mail to let people know there’ll be a monetary award to all attendees. Collectible at the conclusion of the service.
I always think it’s a good idea to plan your own memorial service in advance, and to entrust the plans to someone you trust absolutely. That way, the process can’t be hijacked by well-meaning but clueless people who might want to eulogize you as [for example] The Woman Whose Favorite Comic Strip Was “Love Is…,” rather than “Doonesbury.” Or who would have the organist play a prelude medley of Clay Aiken songs. And who would hire a Baptist preacher who gives a come-to-Jesus altar call, right after consigning your soul to the heaven you were unsure of.
Boy, Ruth, you really hit that nail on the head. We still talk in our office of the philosophic agnostic whose funeral in no way resembled the man we knew. Instead of asking any one of dozens of people who actually loved him to eulogize him, a blustery preacher got up and said something like, “I never met Jim, but have I got a salvation deal for you.”
After the service, we huddled outside the church in silence. We all knew that Jim would have been horrified by all the scripture and hymns and especially the salvation deal. Finally, someone said, “Who is this man they’re burying today? I don’t think it’s our friend, Jim.”
Most of us drove home composing our own funeral script in our heads. I even picked out songs and thought about who could speak. But I never put it together and never gave it to my husband. Guess if you think about it long enough, funerals are for the comfort of the living. Maybe Jim’s family needed to believe he was safely tucked away in some kind of euphoric afterlife until they could meet up with him later. They couldn’t bear the possibility of nothingness. Come to think of it, neither can I.
At my father’s funeral, the priest eulogized a man none of us, his five children, recognized. Later, while enjoying a few drinks at the reception following the service, he allowed as how he had been talking about the wrong dead guy. Oops. He thought it was pretty funny. Actually, we sort of thought it was funny too.
As a person whom you’ve described as “religious,” (I don’t think of myself in those terms), I can say that belief in heaven, while providing some comfort, really isn’t that important. The 20-person adult Sunday school class I lead in a Methodist church surprised me recently in a conversation about this. I asked, “What happens when you die?” and not a single person around the circle answered with “You go to heaven.” I concluded that they, like me, found that notion so ultimately unknowable that it was not particularly relevant to the faith. Rather, our faith empowers and directs how we live this life; what follows is what follows.
The class conversation lead to a conversation at home with my 88-year old father, who participates in the class. Near the end of his own life, he was speculating about whether he would see my mother again, whether they would recognize each other, and whether he could then seek and receive her forgiveness (he didn’t identify the offense(s)). I told him that I can’t imagine anything I could aptly call “paradise” or “heaven” that included worrying about old grievances. It doesn’t make sense, and it sure doesn’t sound like heaven.
On the other hand, belief in something is a comfort if only because the alternative is so discomforting. Personally, I found the great nothingness enveloping the land in The Neverending Story (a terrific book but AWFUL movie) far more frightening than Dante’s vision of hell (which informs the image most Christians have of hell far more than what scripture has to say). The belief in something is where I usually find my comfort at a funeral, celebrating a life while contemplating the assurance that something else follows, but we can’t know what ‘til we get there ourselves.
Plan ahead, I say —
I won’t have any bad hymns
sung at my service.