It was my maternal grandmother who passed away last week (August 17, 2010).
The funeral was interesting, to say the least. Tina and I missed the visitation on Thursday night. We drove three hours with Talulah on Friday morning for the 11 a.m. funeral.
We arrived in Grand Rapids at 10:30 a.m. We met my brother at my Aunt and Uncle’s house where we’d stay that night. Jon drove up without his wife and two kids on Thursday from NC. The drive is 13 hours.
We dropped Talulah off, changed clothes and hopped back in the car and headed for the church. There, we hugged my mom and the rest of the family.
My grandpa looked physically drained. My grandma’s passing took its toll on everyone who stayed by her side.
After our hellos, the family was ushered into a side room to pray with the pastor. Then we entered the church and passed my grandma’s body for the last time.
I stood behind my grandpa while he looked at her face and torso in front of the half-opened casket. I could see his shoulders shrug up and down as he wept.
I imagined a rush of feelings, thoughts and emotions. There may have been a flash of their wedding. Making kids. Having kids. Driving with his wife to Florida each year. Watching her get sick. Watching her die.
I wanted to move closer to him, but when he saw me approach, he felt rushed and shuffled into the church. It crushed me. I didn’t want him to hurry. I wanted to be a part of the moment.
The final viewing wasn’t like the Catholic funerals that I’ve grown accustomed to in Chicago. At a Catholic service, you have a chance to kneel before your loved one at a Catholic mass. It’s humbling to move down to the level of the dead.
I’m not sure if it was my family or the protestant way, but no one reached out and touched the corpse.
We were seated in the front pews of the church. We barely took up three small rows. Should everyone have come, we’d have at least been five pews.
As non-Christians, Tina and I made a positive effort to give the Christian rites their fair share of participation. I opened the bible to follow along with the readings. I was taught that we were to always follow along with the pastor when he read. I find it helps to understand the message better.
Back in the days of illiteracy, the priests could use the bible’s message any way he wanted. When a person is literate, he should make sure he is following along with the pastor’s message. It’s an accountability thing. A personal responsibility.
The pastor read from Psalm 23. I can still quote the entire chapter by heart. Do you want my autograph?
The second reading was from Psalm 9o. Of course he left out a handful of verses, including verse 3 (“You return men back to dust.”), verse 7 (“We are consumed by your anger / and terrified by your indignation.”) and he left out the first part of verse 9.
The pastor read from Romans, but he mumbled the chapter and verse so quickly that I missed it.
The pastor gave a sermon based on Paul’s letter to the Romans. I don’t remember exactly what he said, because my mind was wondering a lot. I feared that my brother thought I was posturing by following along in the bible, and he, nor anyone else, was. I feared that I would distract him — because he was thinking too much about my disbelief — and that his own ability to grieve the loss of my grandmother would be diminished by my presence. I feared that I wasn’t getting the point of the funeral.
I started to think about my own funeral, and how much better it would be, at least in my noggin’. The readings would come from poetry and books that I love. There would be more of a celebration. At least alcohol would be involved. There would be less somberness, because celebrating life would be for a funeral. Mourning would be for later. A funeral is a time to support each other. It should be something people look forward to, rather than dread. And believe me, it seemed that people dreaded this funeral, myself included.
About the time I was starting to get indignant because the sermon had nothing to do with my grandma, the pastor finally started talking about her life. You could tell that he has a formula for plugging in information he learned from the deceased’s loved ones. I’ve seen this at several funerals now. It makes me sad. I’d rather hear from the people who loved her. I’d rather hear what she loved from her loved ones, rather than hear someone’s second and third-hand accounts of their interpretation of grandma’s life.
The pastor made a connection between Paul being a wanderer, camping from place to place spreading the gospel with my grandmother, who loved to camp with her family. It felt contrived, but I lifted my chin and appreciated it, because I could see it struck a chord with my family.
I got to thinking. What would I say about my grandmother if I were asked? I would say, my grandma loved to play games. She loved to cook. She was the biggest worrier I have ever met. When she babysat me, if she couldn’t see us kids in the yard, she’d scream frantically for us to come to her. When we came running, I’d say, “What is it, grandma?” She’d say that she wanted to make sure I was okay. I’d roll my eyes and say, “Oh, grandma.”
When she came at Christmas time, she brought more goodies and sweets than you knew existed. She’d make homemade peanut brittle. I loved variety of pastel-colored cookies she’d make with different sprinkles. There was one that had a BB-sized, silver pellet on top that would almost break my teeth when I chomped on it.
She loved to make crafts and give them to us in our stockings. There were ornaments and light catchers to suction cup to our windows.
One fond memory was how she made running commentary during meals explaining what food was on the table. “Jer, there’s potato salad. There’s more chips and hamburgers. There are buns, pickles, carrots and broccoli. You could have more mayo, mustard or tomatoes. How about some more bean casserole?” She did it incessantly overpowering conversation at times. At the time, it almost angered me. Now that she’s gone, it was quite endearing.
All these thoughts helped me move through the pastor’s message, because those were my memories. And that’s what bereavement is, isn’t it? Perhaps he tries to be boring to allow the mind to wander into a person’s own memories. At least for me, his message was so little about grandma, I could care less.
Toward the end of the service, the pastor made a statement against atheists who ridicule Christians for believing the ways that they do about heaven, salvation and Jesus.
If believers have confidence in the message, what need is there to include the debate against it … especially at a funeral? This was a church. Ostensibly, only believers were present. In the very least, it was a safe place where the message is what built the building.
After the service, there was a luncheon. Little gray-haired ladies volunteered their time to serve ham sandwiches, potato salad, potato chips and cake. We visited with distant cousins, friends and family we may or may not have ever met before.
About 12:30, people started leaving. My brother Jon decided to drive back to NC after the funeral. A couple cousins decided to leave, too, so they could go to their jobs. One cousin left to install a door frame at his parents’s house.
What a fucking shame it was that we couldn’t all put down our live’s responsibilities to stop, support each other and be together for a few days rather than a few hours.
Hell, Tina and I only stayed for 24 hours in Grand Rapids. We’re assholes, too.
Is death that much of an inconvenience for the living that we kill one good chance to spend time as a group? That’s not good for culture. It’s not good for family values … and these are all people who side with political and cultural systems that boast superior family values.
It all comes down to little more than this, there are political and cultural positions that people take, but none of them are any more than average and often subpar, disingenuous methods of viewing the world. They appear “good” on paper, but that’s about it.
It’s probably a good idea if those who boast their side’s greatness took a kick in the pants and backed off on being so damn pious. They really are no better than any one else.
That’s what grandma would have wanted anyway … as she asked you if you wanted another helping of potato salad.