by Michael Jennings
In the early 70’s I went to a hippie funeral for a fallen fellow hippie. It may still be going on. We wouldn’t hear of anything organized or structured – we’d just gather and, you know, follow our hearts. And we did, wearing our most somber flowing shirts and cleanest jeans.
It was horrible. First we all stood on the dirt in a circle and held hands. Then someone started singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. That’s a sweet song, right? Until we got to: “I told the undertaker, please drive slow. For this body you are haulin' Lord, I hate to see her go". So that petered out quickly. Then came the personal remembrances, consisting of three people trying to speak at once, interrupted by long silences. Then some dreadful improvised free-form “Goodbye” song that finally, finally ended. Followed by the obligatory ghastly potluck (short on luck).
My wife’s mother died. It is not the first time we lost a parent – actually it was the last. But my initial reaction was the same: we needed a Grownup to show up and take care of this. Then the sinking realization: I’m the Grownup? Pathetic. We needed to make Arrangements. Who do we tell? How do we dispose of the body? I felt like a character in a Sarah Glover Mystery. Where the hell was that Grownup?
I called our church. Sally, the parish administrator, picked up on the first ring. Moments later, Fr. Don, one of our associate priests, was on the line, getting info. Elaine was at her mother’s side when she died. Our two girls showed up immediately, and all three sat in a room with a dead body. Now what? Here’s what: the priest arrived, gathered them at the bedside, and offered prayers. Prayers that said: this has happened, it’s final, it’s terrible, we’re still here, please help us. We went home, cried a little, and ate spaghetti.
Next came daily phone calls. How are you feeling? What do you need? We are praying for you. And my favorite from Fr. Don: “I’d be happy to go to the funeral home with you – those bastards are sharks, and I know how to handle ‘em.” (I paraphrase.)
We met with Fr. Tommy, our parish rector – Sally took notes. After we mumbled about what we thought we wanted, he smiled sweetly and said, “We can do anything you want. But let me tell you what you want.” And then he did.
You want a Eucharist, you know why? It allows Pearl to join us. Noon is a good start time. Yes, the photo of her will look nice there. Shall we configure the altar and seating thus? This psalm reminds me of your family. How about these hymns? Sally will print the program (and Deacon David will come downtown and pick up the photo). Sure, a meal following would be lovely, set the tables Friday if you want. By all means, serve wine. Now let’s pray you out of here; you have my cell number.
The overwhelming, formless task was now finite, scheduled, codified. We went home and ate spaghetti.
On Saturday our people showed up. Lifelong friends, family, surprises from the past, a few whose last names we’re uncertain of. They came to share our burden. And it worked. Elaine sang, and the sorrow in her voice grew into an aching blessing, a farewell, a thank you. Clergy, six strong, choreographed as tight as the Pips, dressed the altar. Fr. Don directed his homily right to us, addressing us repeatedly by name. The girls offered tender remembrances of a doting grandmother, and Elaine spoke from her heart to her mother’s. We took communion at the altar, and then sat down and took it again: Pearl’s pot roast, mashed potatoes, and ambrosia. We sat for a long time, eating banana cream pie out of jars like baby food.
Our ceremony was not an exorcism of sadness, and may do little to ease the lifelong sorrow we will feel at her loss. But dwelling so attentively on the ritual of a loving, shared farewell has helped us hold her absence as a part of the great turning of the wheel. In a palpable sense it answered our prayer: this has happened, it’s final, it’s terrible, we’re still here - please help us.