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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Case for a Good Funeral: The View from This Side of Heaven

I think there is a benefit that has accrued to me by virtue of attending way more funerals than most people have in their lifetime.  At first glance this might seem counter-intuitive.  Funerals are to be dreaded.  They are sad, sorrowful affairs, with lots of crying, a ton of emotion, and in many cases, they are also occasions for more than a fair share of drama. 

I especially dread the ones with open caskets.  There is something deeply unsettling about seeing someone laid out “in state.”  I remember when my mother was interred, the first time we saw her, the undertaker had attempted to make her lips look less drawn by over-reaching with her lipstick, and the odd result was that she looked like she had the pasted-on smile of the “Joker” on the famous Batman series.  When my father died, it was after a week or so of extended hospital care on a ventilator, so he had hadn’t shaved.  Despite all the photos I had provided the funeral director, we showed up for the first family viewing to see him presented “in state” with a full mustache.  I had never seen my father sporting any kind of facial hair in his entire life, and the effect was startling.  He looked like he could pass for Tony Soprano’s older brother Sal.  Very unsettling. 

Funerals are further made awkward when relatives press their hands into your arm and whisper, “she/he looks good.”  I’m not sure why people say that, and whether it’s really true under the circumstances.  Even in a hospital bed my mother looked better—she was alive.  You get my point. 

The more funerals you attend, the more you also begin to see that they fall into a clear hierarchy.  Those of the elderly are small, orderly affairs.  In many cases only a few relatives and friends remain.  My mother said you could always tell how old someone was by the length of their funeral procession.  Given the tragic way my grandmother Vicki died, that proved to be a very prophetic commentary.  After all, she was taken from us prematurely, and despite that she was 85, her funeral procession stretched for almost a mile.  She was obviously young at heart and adored by throngs of admirers.  

For the truly observant, funerals also represent an opportunity for reflection; for looking back and for taking account of things.  It is almost impossible to sit at a wake while someone is reciting a decade of the Rosary, and not have your mind wander off in zillion different directions.  Thinking about your relationship to the deceased, thinking about your proximity to their circumstances.  It isn’t too long before it’s all about you—when might I be next?

My friend Brian Martinuzzi’s funeral these past few days offered me just such an opportunity to be observant and reflective, and a good many things came of this experience.  First of all, it is actually wonderful to see a great family at the funeral of an immediate loved one.  Good families seem to keep the press of drama to a minimum, or at least out of the public view, and they also rally.  They display themselves for who they are—just honest, caring, decent people you’d love to have living next door to you.  Families you’d love to spend more time with.  I can’t help but think it would be great to be part of one of the Martinuzzi’s intimate holiday gatherings, to watch the sibling dynamics, the inner family chemistry and repartee.  The traditions, the simple joys, seeing who brings the food, who shows up perennially late.  Just speaking with any of them, you get a sense that the quick and incisive wit that surely finds itself on display at their family affairs was probably shaped and crafted at spirited family dinners. 

As a kid I had some exposure to life at the Martinuzzi table.  With 7 kids, it was spirited for sure.  Pure chaos might be a more accurate description.  There was the time I was there for one of Joan’s meals, and Kurt had put Lisa on the Lazy Susan that spun the food around the circular table in the center of the kitchen.  Everyone except Lisa thought it was quite funny and highly entertaining to watch her spin, with her long hair flailing, until she finally screamed to be let off the improvised merry-go-round, and ran off crying into the bathroom where she promptly threw up. 

Watching the Martinuzzi family at the wake of their “number one son” was a sight to behold.  For all their differences, you can’t help but be envious of the entire clan.  The deadpan funny, tough-as-nails Massachusetts matriarch Joan, the graceful Anne, the scrappy boys from Brian, Kurt, Neil to the rough and tumble younger two, Eric and Peter.  And of course the ever adorable youngest one, Lisa.  Each of them pursuing life on it’s own unique terms.  It brings back memories of their dad, Eddie.  With his broad smirk and earnest demeanor, and his close-cropped hair, shorn as if to limit any display of his well-defined Italian hair and features, Eddie was clearly a patriarch well suited to the strong matriarch sitting across the table.  

Listening to Lisa, Neil and Kurt speak about Brian in the past tense was both mesmerizing and intense, bittersweet and telling.  I have to be honest.  As I approached Brian’s wake, I felt a powerful reaction, a ton of raw unchecked emotion.  Part of it, I concluded, was a consequence of the announcement.  I had received the news about Brian from Kurt via a group email.  My first reaction was “here goes” as I saw Kurt move into his all-too-familiar distant, detached doctor mode.  He offered us telling tribute, sanguine medical prognosis and logistical details all in one matter of fact missive written like an auto-repair manual, something I’m sure Brian would have actually appreciated, given his penchant for exacting detail.  At the same time, Kurt shared how much he was already missing his frequent phone calls with Brian, and it hurt my heart to hear him say that.  Clearly Kurt was feeling the loss, and unlike Eddie’s funeral where Kurt spent much of his time in the choir loft, observing events from a distance, he was clearly participating fully in an exercise of communal caring and grief.

Part of my strong reaction to Brian’s passing also had something to do with our proximity in age.  It is hard to see someone you’ve grown up with since the days of boy scouts die so suddenly.  In real terms, Brian’s six-month illness was a rapid fast transition, made more stunning by the fact that it came out of nowhere.  One minute he had left the law firm and was in a job transition.  The next minute he was seeing a doctor for some unexplained symptoms, and in another nanosecond he had a terminal diagnosis, and was headed into surgery.  Of course, part of my reaction was the deep sadness I felt thinking of Joan.  I know too well from my own past family experience how hard it is to watch a parent bury one of their children.  As a parent, you cannot imagine anything worse.  There is good reason for that.  Nothing is worse.

I also may have been looking at Brian from my bias as a married man with a family.  Brian, after all, was a bachelor without children.  There was something I kept thinking—Brian was such a nice, caring, good man.  It felt a little like he had not benefited fully in the rewards such virtues certainly entitled him—that is to say, a good wife, and the blessing of children. But after listening to his siblings talk about him at length, I think I had that part of Brian’s story wrong.  Brian lived a rich and fulfilling life through others.  He was a dedicated uncle, brother, son and friend, relationships that stop us from otherwise worrying needlessly that he had somehow missed out.  

The redeeming part of attending funerals for people like Brian is that they confirm our faith in a higher order.  It is so easy to look back on his life, and fret about the question “Why?” until suddenly it hits you like the sudden revelation that it is.  There is a reason why good people leave this planet way to soon.  It happens all the time.  If you were God, wouldn’t you be stacking the skies above with the best and the brightest?  When you were contemplating spending an eternity of time with someone, wouldn’t people like Brian be among those first to come to mind?

There is also something very revealing about watching other people at funerals.  Members within close families sometimes take exception to the distant relative or friend who shows up at a funeral and cries excessively, in the same way they decry the person who seems to display no emotional register when the circumstance certainly warrants it. But grief is an entirely personal pursuit, and in truth, mourning is not an indication of character.  Rather, it simply reveals it. 

I was sitting next to my friend Gil’s dad, Mr. B, during the service, and watched him tear up during the eulogy.  He said afterward, he didn’t really know Brian or the family all that well, but there is something truly virtuous about a guy who registers strong emotions when he clearly sees something.  Mr. B immediately sensed that herein lived someone who truly made a difference in the lives of others. He said after, “I had heard all the stories about the Martinuzzi kids back in the day when someone was always in trouble.  What a great family. I only wish I knew him better.”  Isn't that what we’d all like to have said of us in the end?  It was so heartening to see Mr. B shed tears upon hearing the other side of the Martinuzzi family chronicle, that story for which a good funeral is necessary. 

That’s the stuff that really makes a funeral worthwhile.  It’s on this side of heaven, right up close to death’s door that we are reminded of better days, and a more complete picture of a person emerges, their unique worth ultimately revealed to us.  This got me thinking about the other display of emotion that always grabs me about Mr. B.  Whenever he sees any of his boys, he always hugs them and kisses them openly.  For men of his generation, this is an uncharacteristic display of affection.  But by God, seeing both of these sides of him, his ability to show real affection and grief, is an inspiration to be the guy that stand-up guys like Brian would want us to be.  And the fact is, we need more guys like Mr. B. and Brian, Neil and Kurt, to remind us that these emotions are not reserved for weddings and funerals, but available and ready for wear every day in the most common way, in the midst of life’s minor miracles and daily milestones.     

We can’t possibly sustain a saccharine-sweet life with all bliss, and beauty, blue skies and babies.  With pain, suffering and life’s ultimate impermanence facing us squarely in the face, we must come to appreciate that without some exposure to Death’s sting, and illness’ bitter rough edge, life’s most important victories and joys would be lost on us, taken for granted, cast off as ordinary.  Without others on hand to laugh, cry and grieve, we would simply wither into that isolation that our blessed connection with others prevents.

In Kurt’s tribute to Brian, he mentioned the two opposing life views held in the palm of his hand.  In one hand, was a note saying, “I am but a speck of dust.”  In the other hand, the note said “The world is all for me.”  If not for a good cry at a sad and bittersweet funeral of a dear and wonderful soul lost to us, where would such reminders of the truths grasped in both his hands greet us? 

As I completed writing this, I learned that a former colleague was killed this morning on the side of I-696 awaiting assistance on the way to work.  I re-read the email Dennis had sent me three days earlier talking about the blessings of the New Year.  There but for the grace of God, go us. 

Living well, I rest thee in the thought.

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