Thursday night, I was informed that a close relative of mine had passed away. I think I wrote the diary I did over the weekend in part because of that news. At 10AM, we will lay my relative to rest, and early this morning, I am driving to be present.
In the past ten years, I've had a strange side-gig of sorts. I have, at many times, been asked to help people write eulogies. It began when I helped a few people, and somewhat expanded. Family members would find that they struggled to say things the way they wanted, and I would get letters, notes, news clippings and items. At the time, I worked as a director in a retirement community.
Every so often, people still ask, and I have always been willing. I think it's part of why I'm attached to the book "Speaker for the Dead" so much, the concept of telling the story of someone's life.
This funeral, however, is not one of those. But I'm reminded of everything I've written for others, and I wanted to waste a few readers time with them. Sorry about that. I promise this won't be a book, just some thoughts.
Everyone loves to tell you that in life, there are a few things you can't avoid. Death and Taxes. If you've grown up in the US, you hear that phrase often. What's funny, though, is the part that phrase leaves out.. there are really three things you can't avoid: Death, Taxes.. and Life.
No human being walks through life without in some way touching the life of another. We can't avoid it, no matter what we do. I've met some hermits, people who hid out in their apartments, refused to know those around them. I've met people who had grown bitter and angry in their old age. But I've never met anyone who wasn't given a hug as a child, feel that the world might end if they couldn't be with a crush as a child, and share part of who they are with someone else.
The thing about funerals is that they are an event entirely for the living. The person you are going to commemorate isn't there. If you're religious, you believe their soul has already moved on, and you are helping them along their way. If you are not religious, than once it's over, it's over. Either way, a funeral is not for the deceased. A funeral is for the living.
The tears, the laughs, the hugs and the touches aren't because people want to show the deceased how much they care, it's because we have that desire to show each other how much we also will miss the person who is gone.
There are joyous funerals, a celebration of life and love, and upbeat session that expresses the love and joy of the individual. Their are sad commemorations where the world seems so much less without the person.
Whether we want to admit it or not, they are both selfish reactions - how will I live without this person in my life? Let me think of the ways this person has impacted me.
That lecture you get as a kid: being selfish is bad, it's wrong. I think it misses the point. Because in that selfish moment the question we are really asking, even if we don't know if we are asking it is: when I am gone, will people mourn me? Will they miss me?
And that's the right question to ask. Because it challenges us every day to say: how can I be like this.
Tomorrow's funeral will be packed. There will be friends and family of someone who was incredibly loved, leaves behind a large family and helped those he knew. It will be a church full of those who loved him and want him to be remembered.
Whether you want to call it a soul, an aiúa, a conscience what it really boils down to is whatever makes you.. you. No matter what you do, no matter where you go, there is only one of you - more unique then snowflakes, and so unique that when we run into each other, even identical twins, triplets or whatever that we as other humans can tell them apart.
The part of us that mourns at a funeral mourns because something fantastic, incredible and unique is gone.. and we selfishly will miss it. You see lots of commercials that joke about "The rarity of a triple unicorn!" and so on. But there is nothing in the world as rare as you. As much as we want to pretend differently, each human being is different from each other in such significant ways that we aren't just recreated. I always smile when someone says: "Boy, you remind me of".. because what they are saying is: I see 5%, 10% of the qualities of X in you, the qualities I liked, and because of that, I'm willing to know this unique and different alien person I just ran into.
Because that's what we are. Psychologists write pop-theory books, "Men are from X, women are from Y".. but the reality is: every person, every single person on the earth is the only person from their own planet.. we just happen to share it with them. And every time we shake hands, get a hug, kiss, make love, and cry with them, we are sharing an experience with someone alien to us. We can't read their thoughts, we can't command them. But we give them trust and our heart.
A resident at a retirement community who knew hew as soon to die pulled in friends so he could tell them his story. Sure, again, there is an element of selfish interest: remember me. But what he really needed to know was: what did I do with my life? How is the world different because I was here?
One of the things that he enjoyed at the time was telling me a story of how a girl in his high school had broken his heart. I asked him how it worked out, and he said that he had not spoken to her again since - 60 years ago.
The fact that they hadn't spoken didn't mean much; the fact that even as a kid, he had such a powerful feeling for that person still defined a part of who he was. That's something most people forget. It's easy to grit our teeth and pretend our past isn't as it was, but in so many ways it shapes us. No matter how great or bad your youth was, it defines part of you. And it helped define those around us.
People tend to judge themselves on a harsh curve.. they have expectations of making monumental changes. Did I make the changes of a global leader? Well, maybe not. But no matter what you did, no matter how small, you don't know the moment that something you did changed the direction of the world for someone else in it. It's why we worry about the death of small children, because we feel as though their web and connection with the world was never realized. We are naturally terrified of mass death, by accident or evil because whether we know it or not, on some level we know a whole has been torn in the fabric of our universe.. it's not that life has ended, it's that multiple people who had a chance to be connected by those threads are gone along with it, abruptly stopped from extending the ripple in the world that person brought with them.
It's the tapestry of who we are. It's the story of our lives. Like spiderwebs, we fling bits of ourselves out there for people to have or reject, to love or hate. Because like death and taxes.. we can't avoid that part that of existence that is life.
Someone read my blog the other day, and reminded me of a eulogy I had written for an infant, who died far too young. How senseless was it, in the minds of oh so many, that such a young child would be called away.
The parents were devastated, their families had dealt with something so tragic it was difficult to process. The child had a short life span that wasn't enough to know what kind of person it would be, this alien being that their love had created. But while we would never know that being, it's passing changed the tapestry of all of our lives. It's webs, it's life, had already twined into ours and it's story would be part of the story of their parents life forever. It would be part of the story of the family forever. It would be, in all meaningful ways, a part of the story of the universe as it would be told. We now lived in a new universe, a universe that was missing the existence of a small child. And, no matter what we did, we would never live in a universe that had them in it again.
And that's the impact we have. That's why when we pass we remember. It's why every life, long or short, powerful or simple leaves ripples that go beyond us.
Somewhere in India, a child is born and somewhere in the US a child dies. I didn't know them, they may never know me, but in some measure, the universe is now different because of these events. I may not notice it directly, but unlike math it is not a simple matter of addition and subtraction.. something unique and incredible is gone, and something completely different has arrived.
Today, on Christmas Eve, I will celebrate the ripples in my life that a relative made. I will look around a packed church and think about how I live in a universe that is forever changed because he was in it, and it is changed again as he leaves.
As I walk into the church, I will be greeted by friends and family, who are also their to mourn the uniqueness that has left their life. But, I will also meet people who are aliens to me - I've never met them, they have never met me. But we share a common bond of someone we did know. An explorer who found relationships and built a bridge.
And that's what makes all of us humans so different. I can walk into a place where there is sorrow and meet people who I have never known - aliens in my universe ;) - and first contact with these strange people will occur in hug, a handshake, and a story of the things we share in common. How much hope is there in the world that all of us instinctively reach out and hope for first contact with something we may never fully understand, and we do it because we want to understand more.
My little part of the quilt that makes up the fabric of the world has been through some changes and loss, but funerals - an event for the living - is our chance to take all of the threads that connect us and stitch them back together.
Happy Holidays, all.
2:00 PM PT: It was a beautiful service. I was very touched by the fact he was laid to rest in a beautiful wooden coffin. On top of the coffin was a simple carpenter's pencil, laid their the night before. and written all over the casket itself were notes, stories, jokes and well wishes. How fitting, and fantastic.