An American Funeral

Recently I witnessed something remarkable–yet altogether ordinary.

I had the honor of being invited to a family’s memorial service a while ago.  While not a member of this family, I am very close to one member and through him knew the deceased.  To the others, Sylvia was sister, sister-in-law, aunt, great-aunt, and relationships extending outward from there.  Her own family had scattered after her divorce, and she moved up to Minnesota to be close to her brother’s family.

She was one of those people whom other folks sometimes refer to as a character.  Loving and spirited, never shy about sharing an opinion, she had filled her 70-plus years in ways both ordinary and not so ordinary, including honorable service as a U. S. Marine back when women were told their place was in the kitchen.  Had grief not clouded their thinking, the family could have gotten her an honor guard with a 21-gun salute, “Taps,” and a flag, but they thought about it too late.  To me it was a shame, not just because it was an honor she richly deserved, but because I would dearly have loved to see the reaction to the 21-gun salute from the other residents of the apartment building whose party room hosted this event.  I have a feeling that if it had stirred them up, Sylvia would have loved it.  Partly it would have been her wonderful sense of humor, and partly the simple acknowledgment that her years of service were worthy of it.

Why a party room and not a funeral parlor?  Money, of course.  None have gotten wealthy or held fancy titles in this family.  For some there is the constant struggle of raising small children, putting food on the table, coping with another layoff, sharing transportation among those who have cars.  One is working hard to finish college without incurring excessive debt and was, in fact, supposed to be studying for midterms this evening instead of being here.  Frequent smiles and laughter reveal teeth which have not been replaced. But to judge them by economic standards would be a serious mistake.  This family is rich in love, loyalty, generosity.  Every member is involved in the others’ lives.  Any child present, whether infant or teenager, is lovingly minded by each adult in the room, and each child knows it. Tears are dealt with by the nearest adult.  Family is who they are.  For this event, everyone took a hand, brought food, shared cooking on the grill outside, set up and cleared off tables, shared memories, shared tears.

They also shared laughter.  This, after all, was to be a celebration of the life of Sylvia.  Tables were spread with pictures of her, from being held as an infant by her mother to recent ones where two broken hips confined her to a wheelchair.  Her treasured keepsakes were also there, and throughout the event, all present were encouraged to select the ones that held personal meaning and memories of Sylvia to take home themselves.  One member of the family played piano well enough to provide music, choosing old standards and songs that she’d loved, but not to the exclusion of his participation as a family member.

In the spirit of this sharing, even a restraining order was temporarily forgiven so that all could gather.  All but one, that is.  One member was behind bars.  He was caught in the swing of the political pendulum.  Fifteen years ago his offense would have been considered punishable, yes, but minor enough that a few years of jail time would have been all society demanded of him. But too many complained that this society wasn’t harsh enough on its criminal offenders, particularly its young ones, so more recently jail terms have gotten longer and keys thrown away.  Thus he sits, no one knowing when or whether he’ll be freed.  No one can afford the really expensive attorney that might make the difference.

He could not be released for this, but in the infinite compassion of our prison system, the restrictions on his allotted phone time were lifted for the evening.  Once the connection was made, a tiny cell phone was passed from one person to the next so that all present could talk to him.  Each could share a favorite memory of Sylvia and let him know how much he was missed.  One young woman related how she got the “stamp of approval”  just after she started dating one of Sylvia’s nephews.  After a private conversation with the woman, Sylvia had turned to her nephew and declared to him that, “This one’s a keeper!”  On the phone I recalled a bit of advice she’d given for selecting a dog: The secret was to let the dog select you.  Since I was in the process of showing off my new dog to Sylvia at the time, I found the timing of the advice questionable but felt relieved that in fact I’d picked out the dog that picked me first.

The battery on one phone was used up, another phone located, the call reconnected, and the conversations with him went on.  Meanwhile food was served, eaten, and cleared away.  Other conversations went on as well. Plans were discussed for upcoming holidays: whose house was big enough, when to hold the event, who’d bring what.  Summer travel plans had now been amended to include at stop near Aspen to scatter Sylvia’s ashes in a spot she’d found restful and whose beauty had spiritually refreshed her periodically throughout her life.

After all had talked with him, the phone was handed back to his mother.  Removing herself from the centers of noise and activity, she sat and and carried on her own personal conversation with her son.  As she spoke to him, she started rocking back and forth, back and forth, through the whole rest of her conversation. I doubt she was even aware of it.  This, then, was the thing that struck me, the thing I found both remarkable and ordinary.  Anyone walking into the room at that moment, knowing nothing of funerals or prisons or any of the other dramas playing out in that room that night, upon seeing her would instantly know one thing:  The person on the other end of that phone conversation was this woman’s baby.

Heather is or has been daughter, sister, woman, wife, ex-wife, mother, grandmother, lover, friend, waitress, store clerk, family day care provider, store manager and manager trainer, group facilitator, board president, mayor, council member, poetographer, auction clerk, courier. Someday she’s likely to decide what she wants to do when she grows up if she doesn’t grow old too soon first. She blogs at Just Passing Through.

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One Response to “An American Funeral”

  1. July 23rd, 2010 at 1:56 am

    zackoz says:

    What a joyful celebration of family life and love!
    And a reminder of what’s really important.

    Thank you.

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