I look in the casket but the you I knew is not there. Left instead is the body-suit you wore when I knew you. Who you were, your essence, your soul, is not there. The man I bore two children with, the friends with whom I shared my young mothering days, the man who came to all the community meetings and was so handsome everybody stared at and flirted with him, the woman on the corner who used to meet the kids’ buses after school, the “aintee,” the cousin, the colleague, the neighbor, the friend of the friend.
None of you lay in your caskets though I look and look to see you. You have gone bye-bye.
As a young girl who went to church with my family every time the door opened, I attended many funerals. I was fascinated by:
- the gravity of the voices,
- the depth of the sorrows,
- the public weeping,
- the dramatic carrying-on of some,
- and then the transcendent joy.
The deacons in their crisp, dark suits read the same passages from the Bible, “Man is but of a few years and full of trouble…” And later, “Yea, though I walk through the valley in the shadow of death I shall fear no evil for thy art with me…”
The “best” funerals were those for old people who had lived long, full lives. The saddest were those of children and teenagers who had not lived long at all. (When I grew up, funerals of young people were very unusual occurrences and not as common as they’ve become in some neighborhoods.)
Once, as a child I attended the funeral of a woman who sang in the choir with my grandmother. As the choir sang her favorite hymn, I saw her spirit float up from the casket and look down on us with love. She had on the most beautiful aqua garment I’d ever seen. I don’t think I told anybody my vision at the time, because I had already learned that it sometimes made adults uncomfortable if I, as a child, shared my out-of-the ordinary experiences or thoughts with them.
When I was 19, my stepfather died of cancer in the bedroom. I remember that the expression on his face was peaceful, happy even. It was as if he had straightened out the too large pajamas over his ravaged body, lay back on his bed with his arms crossed and looked up to the ceiling and smiled at whoever, whatever it was that had come for him. I had prayed for God to either make him well or come get him because I didn’t want him to continue to suffer. When I saw him, I realized that who he was had gone elsewhere. I imagined he’d flown away to heaven and that, from then on, my family and, especially my brother, would have a guardian looking after us.
I feel certain that spiritual intervention guided my husband to me. I believe that my grandmother and his mother met up in heaven and guided us to each other – the bond, the love, the attraction was so quick and so undeniable. I believe my childrens’ father watches over them.
I have come to realize that funerals are not mostly for the dead, rather they are opportunities for the living to pay homage, to gather, and to reconnect. They acknowledge that we have lived. One of the saddest stories I’ve read is about a man who’s body lays unclaimed in the morgue. To be unclaimed in death seems such a profound sorrow and violation of a human life.
I recently read a great book about obituaries and obituary writers, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson. It is truly a joyful book because not only does it teach about the great art of capturing famous, infamous, and so-called ordinary lives in a few short words, but also about the reporters drawn to this form. She writes about an annual conference for obituary writers and it sounds like a hoot! I am an unabashed obit reader because I like to learn how people lived. An obituary allows me to celebrate folks I didn’t know while they were alive.
I am not eager to make the transition to what comes after but when I do, I hope my children, family and friends will look at the body I leave behind and know that I am no longer in that dwelling but have gone on to another realm. May the work I’ve done and the love I’ve given speak for me.
I read obits too. And, surely, funerals are for the living.