Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Grave Thoughts

Jumping from my Uncle Howard's funeral immediately into Las Vegas debauchery was a jarring experience. One day you're confronted with the absolute finality of human existence and all its attendant sorrows -- pain, loss, anger, depression, sadness -- and the next you're wandering down a neon-lit boulevard, surrounded by billion dollar temples to excess -- lust, passion, illusion, greed, you name it and it's for sale.

Jarring, indeed.

One thing the priest said at the funeral stuck with me, even through the din of slot machines and the cheap promises of free liquor and easy money. As he did at my grandmother's funeral (yes, the same priest presided over the passing of both my grandmother and my uncle), he said something I've not heard at any other funeral before:

Let us now bow our heads in prayer for the next member of this assembly who will join Howard in death, for though we cannot know to whom this burden next will fall among us, fall it surely will.
(That's paraphrased from memory, so probably way off, but you get the idea). Since he said it at Grandma's funeral and since I was too out of it mentally to remember much about Dad's, I thought it was just a standard part of the Catholic service. But my sister (who's also my godmother so she ought to know) said it's not -- she's never heard of it before. So I asked some of my friends and coworkers and they've never heard of it at any of the funerals they've attended, either.

Personally, I liked it very much -- it really brought home for me that death waits for all of us at the end our journeys, and none of us really know when that time will come. It could be the youngest, healthiest person there just as easily as the oldest or frailest. With a coffin literally sitting right in front of you, with sorrow fresh and full in your heart, it's a reminder that while this particular service is about your loved one, eventually it's a ceremony we all will be the main attraction of.

My sister hated it, thought that it was a downer and that it took away from focusing on Uncle Howard. But to me, funerals are only half about the person who's gone; the other half is about those left behind, and how the loss will be dealt with by them. That's why we come together for funerals, so that we can comfort each other and remember that although we're lessened by the loss, we are still not alone.

So I'm curious -- have you ever heard of a funeral officiant saying something like that at a funeral? And what do you think of it?

11 comments:

David M said...

a) Never heard of it in a funeral before, though I've been to less than 5 and only 1 that I remember with any clarity.

b) I like it. A lot. It says to me, appreciate your own life, now, because you could be next. And, appreciate those you care about, because they could be next. A reminder to both live and love.

Adam Hebert said...

(this was originally an email, so it's kinda long.)

first off, i love your blog. it's the first link on a "blogs" dropdown menu on my bookmark bar, right next to anderson cooper's, dispatches from the culture wars, libertarian stuff, and all my nerdy apple fanboy blogs.

i just have to react to that last one, and in this case agree w/ aunt denise. that just doesn't sound right.

aren't we bummed out enough at a funeral without something said that makes everyone in the room think: "who's next? we'll have to do this again...hopefully not soon...oh god so-and-so hasn't been doing too well lately...."

i think the appropriate "netspeak" term here is: WTF!?

i don't see the positive spin in this at all. there's nothing about "enjoy your time here while you can, cherish each other, etc." that would have been nice/appropriate, but instead, it's "somebody within a 10 foot radius of you is gonna die...maybe soon too." yeah. thanks jerk. that was what people at a funeral need to hear.

i remember that priest from grandma's funeral, and i don't like him like him at all. look, i haven't mentioned this to anyone else in the family, but i'd like to post this here for everybody to see.

outside right after grandma's funeral i heard him loudly grumbling to himself, in as annoyed of a voice as possible, "marjorie, that's not a name, that's not a real name...."
(forgive my spelling error if i messed up her name)

it didn't quite register with me at the time just how jacked up that is, but it sure did later. that guy sucks, and he needs to watch his mouth/not officiate at Hebert funerals.

Jeff Hebert said...

Thanks for the comments, guys, very interesting. Adam, welcome to Nerd Country! I'm glad you find it interesting.

I didn't know the priest said that, that's a little off-putting. More, I'm surprised you could understand him -- he seems like a very nice man, and having had mouth cancer is horrible, but so help me he DOES sound just like the priest in "The Princess Bride": "Mawwiage ... is what bwings us togevah today ... "

Hope said...

I have to say that I didn't like it when he made that comment either (about the next person to go). Where I understand his message might have been to appreciate what time we have left, I don't understand why he had to present it like he did. Why couldn't he just have said "appreciate what time you have left"? I remember telling my mom how I thought that was a kind of grave comment to make on such a sad day. But then reading how some people interpret the comment makes me wonder about your earlier post about watching what you say because you don't want to offend anyone. If the priest is to make a commment like that, it might be offensive to half the people there and inspiring to the other half. So at what point to we filter what we say for fear of hurting someone, because what we have to say might help another? Just a thought. However, I will say that I don't like that priest either.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I would like to thank all of you on behalf of this branch of the Hebert family for your love, support and prayers during this difficult time and for taking the time to make the trip here for Dad's funeral.

Jeff, I read your post and all the comments - twice. I have to say that I agree with both sides of this discussion. This particular priest is not my favorite by any means and he does seem to have a severe shortage of tact. However, I also agree that the concept behind his comments is an important one. If Dad's illness and death has taught me anything, it is that none of us know when our time will come. As David said, it’s a reminder to both live and love. An appropriate lesson since Dad was a big believer in living life to the fullest.

My personal feelings about the priest aside, I have to agree with Hope about filtering what we say for fear of offending others. Although I believe we all have a responsibility to not intentionally hurt others, I don’t believe that it is our moral responsibility not to offend. That would reduce all of our dialogue to banal small talk and generalities. Personally – I’d rather take the chance of being offended.

Grandma & Daddy were well known for speaking their mind without the filter of political correctness. Sometimes it was difficult to hear what they had to say, but we knew that their words came from a loving place. Even if it was hard to see at the time. So maybe a tactless priest who tells it like he sees it – even with the risk of offending some, was the perfect choice.

Mary

Jeff Hebert said...

Thanks for stopping by Mary, you're dead on -- I think you're right, maybe he WAS the perfect choice given Uncle Howard and Grandma's history. Very well said.

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Denise said...

As the sister/godmother who took umbrage at what the priest said, I have thought a lot about it since I left Uncle Howard's. Because I believe in a God who is peace, salvation and redemption, I know that when people die, they go to a better place spiritually. Thinking about what the priest said, I think it would've been more spiritually uplifting for a comment more in line of we don't know whose time is shortest here on earth. Therefore, let us rejoice in every moment with the people we love, doing the things we love, watched over by a God who loves us every second of the day.

At first, reading what that priest said out of earshot of the family made me angry. If anybody was closest to who they are without pretensions, it was Uncle Howard. But perhaps we took this priest out of context as well. "What kind of a name is Marguerite" -- it will always remind me of Grandma's zest for life. The name "Jimmy" will always cause me to picture my dad, my wonderful brother and my Uncle Jim up in Olean who, God love him, was always up for a 10 p.m. run to Mr. Pizza.

Part of Dad and Grandma's charm was speaking their minds at all times. However, I have come to believe that life can be quite difficult and harsh. Our vicious and thoughtful words shouldn't be added to that cat o'nine tails. Granted, I can be the worst offender for telling someone what I think. But I have grown somewhat mellower the older I've gotten.

As a writer, I understand that words mean something. We should choose carefully, not to bear false witness or to flatter someone's pride, but to enrich lives and hearts.

One of the most memorable funerals I've ever attended was for a man who was just the apple of this community. At his funeral, his friend said that Luther spent his life getting people involved in helping others. Now that he was gone, it was up to the rest of us to carry Luther's torch and spread his spirit of involvement, especially to youngsters, because that's what Luther would do.

When I tell you 500 people left that church smiling, with a mission to help others, I am not exaggerating. So when I compare the two funeral comments, I choose the words of going out and spreading sunshine, acceptance, peace love and compassion.

Anonymous said...

The priest is a unique man, to say the least. My parents knew him for at least 30 years, well before
he had cancer. He visited my dad often in the last months of his life and helped him feel ready and at peace for his transition toward death. He was his friend.

My sisters and I questioned his doing the funeral, but, "What do we know??" You probably didn't hear what he said to Aunt Kathy. I was flabbergasted at that also:

"Well, Kathy, all your brothers and sisters and mother and father are dead now. There's only you here, left alone. You're the last one alive from that generation."

I think he says things without giving them closure. Maybe he has closure in his mind, but it certainly is not on his tongue!

He will definitely not officiate any other funerals in our immediate family either. I believe that his heart is in a better place than his public speaking abilities. Tough spot to be in when you are a priest!

I loved your entry about your dad ironing on the porch. That is so my Uncle Jimmy. We loved the way he always called each of us "his favorite neice". Even though we knew he said it to everyone, he always treated each of us as if it were true. We were his favorites at that point in time. It was enough for us.

After my husband Michael and I were married for a year or so, he asked me, "So is he still a Jew?"
That was the way he was. I just laughed--as I did for so many of his crazy antics!

Anonymous said...

Last one from Sylvia--sorry!

The Cow Whisperer said...

As someone whose Dad killed himself, brother died in a college hazing prank, and overworks himself.....the priest's comments DID make me think...

You'd think that I wouldn't need something like this comment to give pause, but I do occasionally need the slap to the head so that I will hug my kids and Mrs. more often. I have lost a lot, but losing one of them would be too much to bear. If they lost me, are there enough memories? So....I kind of liked what he said. We'll all face our own mortality whether we want to or not. Can we stare the grim reaper in the eye and tell him "Go away...you OFFEND me!"

In a world where we are distracted by every little electronic device, money making scheme, or even blog...we need to hear this occasionally.

Well, anyway, let's not worry so dang much about whether or not we are offended. Our modern age has created an environment where everyone is so offended at every little thing. Mama taught me that water rolls off a duck's back, and I should let things go. I think if we thought like that (and allowed the occasional stomach punch when appropriate) then we could really reduce the amount of lawsuits and bring back some quality of life. (Really, who has every had a genuine lawsuit-worthy injury from a stomach punch? There was even a fat guy who filmed himself getting shot in the belly with a cannon, and he was fine!)

Of course, being a rather blunt individual, it is my fantasy that people would not be so quickly offended. I don't understand why people celebrate things like "He always spoke his mind" at a funeral, but then get offended at the drop of a hat when people do speak their mind.

This is not a comment on whether or not the priest was right to say that. Just that we can beat him up online all night, or we can go hug our kids...or donkeys.