March 15, 2012
On my birthday, I’ve made it a tradition to do something that I’ve never done before. It doesn’t have to be anything spectacular, but I always spend some time trying to think of something at least vaguely innovative. This year I was coming up with a big 0 when a lateral-thinking friend suggested: “going to a funeral of someone you don’t know.” I was instantly sold. During the month or so between the suggestion and the day, I had occasional disconcerting moments when I thought about how there was some hapless person destined to die and be memorialized on my birthday, who may have had no idea the end was near.
I’ve always noticed that Tuesdays are popular days for funerals; I don’t think I’d ever attended one that wasn’t on a Tuesday. My birthday fell on a Thursday, and by the preceding Monday things weren’t looking good, and I was trying to resign myself to wading knee high in the lake before the spring equinox or eating dinner topless on my back deck. Another friend however, enthusiastic about the undertaking, found a funeral mass not only in a church close to me, but moreover one which celebrated the passing of a man of Italian descent who’d had an active public life. This meant that I wouldn’t have to get up to early on my birthday, and that I could slide in unremarked and unquestioned. I intended to comport myself in a respectful and appropriate manner, but questions about my connection to the deceased at a small funeral might have been extremely awkward.
I’d probably walked by the church hundreds of times, but had never had any reason to go inside. Filing in unobtrusively with my resourceful obit-reading friend, I was obscurely comforted by the sonorous organ music and the familiar feel of a Catholic church in session. I grew up attending one each Sunday sick or well until age 14 and so, recovered though I consider myself to be, the familiar ritual was soothing.
I had expected to find the experience solemn and maybe sad, but I anticipated occupying the role of disinterested spectator. In fact, we agreed before-hand that if the event looked like continuing past 1 ½ hours, we’d slip discretely from our second-to-last pue and beat a hasty but respectful retreat; we had a noon concert to get to. I discovered that, for me at least, it’s not possible to be a spectator at a funeral.
This began to dawn on me in the lady’s bathroom before the service. Sequestered in my stall, I heard one tired woman ask, “How’s Mom doing?” and another tired woman answer, “Not good: pretty bad.” This homely exchange stirred vivid echoes of the death of my father, and then my step-father. This proximity to grief evoked a visceral, if unwilling response.
Most of a Catholic funeral consists of the Catholic mass, which is generic regardless of the rite of passage your honouring, and, except for that whole Latin thing, hasn’t changed as far as I know in over a millennium. The responses came unbidden, though unuttered, and my lips shaped the words to hymns that I’d heard at other funerals. The theological content remained remote and impenetrable to me, but as usual, music reached past the logical and literal.
The well-rounded eulogy was given by a notable public figure (which added colour for me) and then several articulate and loving relatives spoke about the life, character and achievements of the deceased. Although I wondered about the things that don’t get said at a funeral, my ignorance of the man himself didn’t detract from the empathetic tears that came in response to the tears of family members who loved him. I found myself thinking about all the people I love, and how many of them I may have to grieve for. What will all those agnostic funerals look like? In the absence of doctrinal assurances of eternal life, how will we console each other?
Our 1 ½ hour deadline felt like it was creeping up, but leaving just wasn’t an option. After the service, we waited till the well-mannered crowd began to move through the bottle-neck that had established itself at the door, and made our exit. As we oozed through the knots of mourners on the sidewalk, I was grateful to be leaving with no burden of personal grief or social obligation. I could cruse lightly off into the rest of my birthday unhindered, but not feckless.
When describing my intention to others, there was a sense of incongruity: “a funeral on your birthday?” But it turned out to be more suitable than even I had thought. Both milestones are recognitions of mortality. We’re alive while others are not. We’ll die, and so will all those we care about. In a way, both events are a celebration of life. On our way to hear live music, my friend and I discussed other funerals we’d been to: friends and family who had died. She and I had never been to a funeral together (happily) and it felt like a new bond, even though the headliner was a stranger. It was obviously a somber beginning to my birthday, but I felt enriched by the privilege of being able to coast away unscathed into a festive day full of friendship and love.