Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thoughts occasioned by hearing "The Shadow of Your Smile" in a funeral home

Two Mondays ago, my uncle (my father's brother) died; the funeral (which I attended) was last Saturday in Houston, and the interment (which I missed, alas) was this past Tuesday in Austin, a day after what would have been my uncle's 66th birthday. He was undergoing treatments for cancer, but he died from heart failure while napping on the couch that Monday afternoon. Apart from my parents, my father's parents and my uncle had the biggest hand in raising my brother and me when we were small children. My brother and I are now the sole remaining direct links to my father and his immediate family. No more connection to the farm I grew up next to in the days when it was an actual working farm, to my father's family's migration from California to Texas after the Depression and WWII--and, before all that, my father's parents' meeting in Texas, marrying there and then moving out to California during the Depression in the first place because there was work in the oilfields in Bakersfield and Grandma had family there. Old family heirlooms and pictures and memory remain. Those things count for something, of course, but just now they feel very tenuous. They are tenuous because they count only so long as someone is alive for whom they have value. And death, of course, is the great reminder that Life is tenuous.

So, my brother and I are now patriarchs. We are too young to be patriarchs. As I told a colleague week before last while participating in arrangements for the funeral and learning of the logistics of probating the will via the telephone and, at the same time, squeezing in time to, you know, teach my classes, "I don't have the beard to be a patriarch." But here we are.

More about all that, probably, in future posts. This post is about funerals--or, more precisely, some things I found myself thinking about during my uncle's funeral.

I should say here as a kind of mea culpa that, yes, I probably should not have been paying so much attention to the funeral home's choice of music to be played in its lobby while we waited wait for my uncle's service to begin. But I'll say two things in my defense: 1) There were plenty of other odd musical selections, as well, that I now don't recall; "The Shadow of Your Smile" (Tony Bennett's version here) sticks because I remember thinking it was something of a last straw; 2) Long story, but I would not have chosen a funeral home for my uncle, a Lutheran serious about his Lutheranism. So, as someone who has been, shall we say, underwhelmed by the funeral home services he's attended in the past, I admit to already being in a critical frame of mind on that day.

"Thou knowst 'tis common," Gertrude tells Hamlet, "All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity," and I know that's true--and just as true of the atheist and the unchurched, and they are no less deserving of a dignified commemoration of their lives and acknowledgment of their passing than are the religious. It's hard to think of a point in our lives where our common humanity is more firmly asserted than at the moment when we die (aside from being born, of course). But once one says that, then what? Granted, I am a product of the church, but it seemed to me, as I grieved my uncle's passing on that Saturday, that only to assert the fact of death and, as is the funeral home's basic task, to pretty up that fact as much as possible, is to leave that experience hollowed out of meaning--not just the meaning of death but the meaning of the life that precedes it.

Funeral homes, I have decided, are just not interested in encouraging their patrons to explore those questions. It would be bad for business (both economically and more figuratively) if they tried. But the result, as I experienced it at my uncle's funeral and, thinking back over other funeral-home funerals, was that I felt strangely adrift, unmoored. For example, I give you a description of the "chapel" (their name for it) where my uncle's memorial service was held: a large room arranged nave-like, with rows of pews forming an aisle; no hymnals in the pews (more about that in a bit); and up front, no altar, not even a raised space to set it apart from the nave--just, on the wall behind that space, a plain, thin, empty cross that had been milled in someone's woodshop/lumberyard and painted but nothing else. In other words, it was (very) generic-Protestant in its appearance, anxious to offend no one . . . but when the cross, of all things, is so boring--there's no other way to put it--that when the pastor is talking about the promise of the Resurrection you have no interest in contemplating it (the cross, I mean), there's a problem. I couldn't help but think that this particular cross was there because, well, there needs to be some sign to signify that it is a Christian space. But beyond that, nothing indicated anyone's particular investment in that space . . . beyond that sense of investment that has business connotations.

This chapel, in other words, is ostensibly a "Christian" space designed not for Christians but as though to prevent upsetting an unchurched person expecting to see something that gestured, however minimally, in the direction of his/her idea of a Christian space. Hollowed out. The cross empty in more ways than one.

My uncle's pastors did what they could to remedy this. They incorporated portions of the Lutheran Church's Order for Burial of the Dead into the service, but because the congregation (if that's the right term for those in attendance at a service in a funeral home) had no text to follow, only the Lutherans among us knew how to respond at the appropriate places in the Order. As for the hymns my uncle had chosen, we had to listen to taped versions of them, provided by the funeral home, played over the P.A. I'll spare you my assessment of the aesthetics of the arrangements and performances of these hymns (though my description of the chapel might give you some idea of what they were like) and instead say this: Funerals are worship services, too, which means the congregation participates (funerals are really for the living, after all). The congregation's singing of hymns, as (thanks to Martin Luther) all good Protestants know, or should know, is part of worship. So, there we were, sitting in this space hollowed out of meaning, not even watching someone sing these hymns but listening to a recording of someone singing them, and I have to admit that I found myself thinking, Who is this for?

I felt reduced to the role of a spectator, and at the funeral of my own uncle, through no fault, really, of anyone but simply because of the nature of the space in which all this was taking place. If not for my desire to see my uncle's body before his cremation and the pastors' two brief eulogies (one described him as "quietly but firmly Lutheran;" the other said he had "at times, a delightfully wicked tongue"--both exactly right), I honestly don't think I would have missed anything by not having attended. That is an unhappy thing to say. A funeral, at its best, should make you glad to have attended despite the circumstances.

If only we could have sung just one hymn--say, "Shall We Gather at the River" (one of the hymns my uncle chose), rather than sit there and listen to the funeral home's televangelist-meets-American Idol version--I probably wouldn't have written this post. Even hearing "The Shadow of Your Smile" after the service wouldn't have led to my writing this, if we'd just been, well, gathered around Something, given Something to respond to. That Something need not even have affirmed my faith, necessarily. Just Something other than this pretty, beige, softly-lit void with its odd musical accompaniment, so value-neutral because, by intention, it has been constructed to keep you from thinking or feeling . . . and not just grief, either, but much of anything at all--including (most especially, I suspect) how much all this is costing, but maybe just enough to allow you to wonder whether you'll feel a little better if you spend just a little bit more.


R. Sherman said...

First, my sincere sympathies to you and your brother. This post jolted me to acknowledge that some day, my two boys will be the sole remaining Shermans in this hemisphere, the Alsatian ones long ago forgotten, and the vagaries of procreation considered. So many stories, memories and lessons learned over which they will have to stand guard. Worse, the ultimate lost connection with their mother's relatives who remain in Germany, doomed in a few generations to be an interesting fact around the Christmas table, if we're lucky.

They [family heirlooms and memories] are tenuous because they count only so long as someone is alive for whom they have value. And death, of course, is the great reminder that Life is tenuous.

The curse of the patriarchy, I suppose.

As for the "generic" feel of the service, I hear you. Good words and one of the reasons our family's tradition is that our deceased kin are laid to rest after a proper service in the church itself, complete with "psalms, hymns and sacred songs" and a sermon of joy for our departed and an invitation for those who may not know.

The fundamental truth, as you point out, is that we become united in our human-ness the moment we or someone we love dies, and the questions of our life's purpose and its place in the Cosmos, rudely push themselves to the front of our consciousness, demanding that we consider them.

Whether we can answer them or not is a different question.

My prayers for you and yours, my friend.

John B. said...

Thanks, Randall.

Again, it's a long story, but I thought it proper when helping plan my uncle's funeral to defer to others. Lutheran funerals are, as funerals go, rousing affairs (a typical opening hymn is "For All the Saints," which may be the loudest hymn ever written when played properly); at their "best," they are genuinely cathartic. Where my uncle's concerned, the catharsis is yet to come.

So, yes, I have some regrets about deferring, as you can probably tell from the post; but, well, other regrets are more important.

Re family history: over the past few years, my brother has become quite the amateur genealogist for my father's side of the family, his task made easier by the fact that it appears that side of the family seems never to have thrown away a developed piece of exposed film for the past 120 years or so. As for whether this all will be preserved after I'm gone, my daughters have shown cursory interest--their ears perked up when they learned that there's a building on 6th Street in Austin, still standing and with a historical marker on it, built by my great-great-great grandfather. "I didn't know we were famous!" C. said. And I'll be passing on to them a glass vase once owned by their paternal great-grandmother's mother (if not by her mother before that. So, maybe the thread of memory won't be broken for a while yet.

Pam said...

I could have stopped after the beginning of this post - and simply pondered the sentence 'We're too young to be patriarchs'... That resonates, and like you - I wish I didn't. With my mother gone, and my father with dementia - it's as if I'm responsible for our tiny extended family (my older brother who drinks much to much, his daughter, and I). At least responsible for the family cohesive, memories - those things that are only of value as long as we remember them as such. I feel too young too - and feel like I've stumbled into the role and am stumbling still.

As for the music...while it's odd, it's hilarious - and perhaps the hilarity is of value. Although I must say, although I'm not a churchy person, I do like the song "Shall we Gather at the River". Yes, it's perfect I think.

I'm sorry for your loss.

John B. said...

Thanks for this, Pam.

There is no script for us newly-minted patriarchs. We muddle through; we grow into the role. We hope we do, that is, assuming we assign it some value. I know through your posts that you value your family and your place in it, so I suspect you'll be fine.

I do not say that glibly, though.