Wednesday, September 2, 2015
In a little while I’ll be going to the funeral services for O, a woman I did not know well although I saw her often over the past few years. She was in her late 60s, retired and, I think, had it pretty rough at times. I was aware of the veneer of her life—troubles with a grand-daughter, arthritis and gallstones, mental health issues, a child of her own who’d died. I learned from the death notice in the local paper that she’d been a government employee for a good part of her life, that she’d been married and perhaps divorced. Up until yesterday, I did not know her last name; she was simply O.
Over the last decades, there have been many services like this one, where I’ve paid my respects to largely unknown people: The parent of a friend, the sibling of a writer acquaintance, a neighbor who perhaps had invited me in a few times for a cup of coffee. The saddest was the death by a drug overdose of a young man who lived near me and had once come over to admire one of my guitars.. These occasions are now part of the warp and woof of life. There are a lot more funerals than there are weddings.
I wear my good pants and shoes and a blue or white shirt and my only pair of dark socks. I no longer own a tie. In winter I’ll wear a coat, in the summer a jacket.
I may know a few of the other people who come to see the deceased one last time, and if I do, we’ll talk about the weather and generally pretend to having a deeper friendship with O than we really had. We may have a funny story or two, or perhaps a particularly sad one that marked us. We will or will not know the cause of her demise, but regardless, we’ll talk about it. We’ll mention a weak heart, or cancer, a stroke or some other terminal disease, and depending on the amount of time it took for death to finally arrive, we’ll say the end was either a blessing or a surprise. We’ll all agree that O looked particularly good when we saw her less than a week ago. Or particularly bad.
The transition from a live, walking and talking human being to a grainy photo in a paid notice in the paper is always shocking. Is this really all that remains after years of living and struggling? How incredibly odd and disturbing! Or is there something else, perhaps a place where the essence of life goes to be recycled?
O was a devout Christian. She went to church and sang hymns. She recited prayers and gave alms. She had friends who shared her faith. She believed in God and Jesus and trusted that she would join her savior. This was not a supposition, it was her certainty. I think she lived her last few years with that comfort, that no matter how rough and unfair things here might get to be, there was a heaven and a reward for being a good and just person like herself. She knew her shortcomings and yet trusted her redeemer to open the gates, perhaps with a wink and a nod. I envy her that, as I do not have that depth of belief; I trust such faith must be a relief when the end comes. Perhaps you can even go with a smile and free of fright.
All in all, O’s passing will probably not affect me greatly. It will whittle down by one the people I know and respect. It will get me into a house of worship, where I have not visited since the last funeral service, which was held for another person I barely knew. I don’t expect an epiphany or even an original sermon. I do expect handshakes and sad smiles and a pat on the back or two, a reassurance that though O is gone, the rest of us are still here, and isn’t that part of what funerals are about, anyway?
We honor the dead and take stock of the living.