I’ve been to a lot of funerals in the last few years. Between your dad and me, we’ve lost six grandparents since moving to Kentucky. That’s a lot. And our church community has lost a significant number of members in recent months.
So I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life.
And I’ve heard a lot of eulogies.
A friend of mine who is a few years older than I am–so she’s in her late 30s–told me she has never been to a funeral.
Talking with her got me thinking back to the funerals of my childhood. The first one I remember was the funeral of my maternal great-grandmother: Grandma Ebersole. My memory of her is mostly of the later years of her life, when she was small and frail and lived with my grandma. She dressed plainly, I believe with a head-covering. Her hair was white. She was little in stature, and for me to think that, given that I was a child, albeit a big child, is telling. She must have been small.
I don’t remember much of that funeral, except that there were distant relatives around and it’s the first time I remember becoming aware that my mom had cousins and used to be a kid once, just like I had cousins and loved to play with mine.
My great-uncle “Woody” died when I was a little bit older. He was my paternal grandma’s brother. And also my great-grandma Woodward, my paternal grandma’s mom, passed away. Because they both had lived in Ohio, and I used to visit them both in the summers along with my cousin Angela, those funerals run together a bit. But I was old enough to feel those losses as someone who, well, as someone who remembered.
At Grandma Woodward’s funeral, the Family Circle sang. My dad offered the eulogy. I remember hearing my dad’s voice breaking, and realizing again the way intergenerational relationships work–he had been this woman’s grandson, and she had been his grandma, and he had been a boy once, and that meant that my grandparents would die, and I would be a grown-up with my voice cracking as I remembered their lives, too. Some day.
I am now that grown-up.
I still tear up when I try to talk about my grandparents who have passed away.
I’m tearing up now, just writing about it.
(This probably won’t surprise you, when you’re older, because already you see my cry all the time, over books or articles or sad news or happy news, and you come over to me and rub my arm or my back to offer comfort in the only way you know.)
I’ve attended funerals as a family member of the deceased, and I’ve attended funerals as a friend of the deceased, and I’ve attended funerals as a mere acquaintance, which makes it sound less than what it is–a member of the community that did everyday life alongside the deceased.
The last two funerals I’ve attended have been that kind–funerals of folks I know through church, who have had an impact on me because of their service to our congregation and to the wider community. I knew these women as strong and courageous and independent. I knew them as encouragers who always asked how I was feeling when I was pregnant, who checked in on me when you both were born, who always commented on how big you were getting.
But I didn’t realize how little I really knew them until I went to their funerals. I only witnessed, in my years here in Kentucky, a small glimpse of their whole lives. It was an inspiring glimpse, but it was only a small fraction of their story.
They had both lived such incredible stories.
And we live in a small town, so their stories affected so many other people’s stories.
That’s what you find out at funerals.
You go from knowing how a person interacted with you to knowing how she changed your whole community.
My friend who has never attended a funeral told me she feels a little morbid about attending funerals, like when people she knows lose loved ones and she wonders about whether she should go. She feels like it’s kind of weird to watch others who are mourning.
I don’t feel that way. In fact, as I sat in a funeral at our church last week, listening to the stories of a life that had worked to bring about the Kingdom of God, I thought to myself: I should really attend more funerals.
Maybe that’s how we can learn to be better human beings.
Maybe that’s how we can witness the genuine loss that every death brings to a community.
Maybe that’s how we participate in the beautiful heartache that is life in community, the sacred ordinary of life lived alongside others, the scars we feel on the hands and feet of Jesus as we offer our own hands and feet to the world.
And maybe that’s how we start thinking about what our own eulogist would say about us.