Most of my life I have been quite successful at finding reasons not to go to funerals. But as I grow older I find these events more difficult to avoid. Not only does it seem more people are dying, but my old excuses of youth, pregnancy, baby-sitting, employment or 'too poor to travel' just don't hold up any more. I find I simply will offend if I do not put in an appearance. It is not that I am not fond of the friend or relative or their survivors; it is just that funerals are in such abominable taste.
In the first place most of them have a corpse and an open casket, so we of necessity remember the dead, not the living, person. I wonder how many young people's nightmares and older persons' unhappy recollections can be directly attributed to this more-or-less coercive viewing of the dead.
Few, if any, dead persons look natural. Most have become emaciated by illness, and the undertaker's ministrations have merely made them caricatures of themselves. Many are wearing their spectacles, something I find especially pointless. Glasses are such a nuisance in life—couldn't they be dispensed with in death? Yes, I know they are supposed to "make him look more natural." But he isn't natural, he is dead.
The real evil of funerals, however, is the clergy person's nonsense, the absolute gibberish he spouts for half an hour—an uncomforting, unconvincing string of platitudes and prayers that has nothing to do with the life of the person who has died. So often a funeral service has been so utterly impersonal that I have decided the clergyman went to his files, grabbed a prepared sermon under "funerals," hastily penciled in a few blanks here and there with the name of his victim, and proceeded to present his atrocity, comfortable in his knowledge that his audience would be too polite to object and that his fee would be forthcoming despite his total lack of homework.
Sometimes the clergyperson is so indifferent that he does not even get the right name. A sweet aunt of mine who died recently at age 80 had been known all of her life by her middle name, but the clergyman, of whose church she was a member, and who publicly professed his friendship of several years' duration for this "blessed soul, " referred to her throughout his otherwise impersonal remarks by her first name. Bewildered, I wondered as I listened, which one of us, I or he, was at the wrong funeral.
Years ago I attended the funeral of a 96-year-old woman, whom I loved dearly, who had kept house for our family for ten years after my mother's death. Protestant Irish, of independent spirit, she was a feminist, a "maiden lady," and very proud of it. She sincerely regarded most men (not all, but most) as inferior, and her single state was definitely by choice. The unctuous clergyman, who again publicly stated his intimate knowledge of her soul, concluded his asinine sermon with the passage from the bible which extols the good wife! Had I not already been convinced that there was no afterlife, I would have been at that moment, because had there been any possibility, my feisty friend would have risen from the dead and throttled that agent of god!!
It pains me particularly to have to sit through this kind of service when I know that so much of relevance could be said. One woman I know who had lived a particularly long, full life—a scientist who had pioneered in a field traditionally closed to women—an active, interested and interesting person up to the moment of her death, should have had a memorial service that was meaningful. But here again we had another victim of religious prattle.
I think the saddest funeral I ever attended was that of an elderly woman of Scandinavian background who had taken care of our children when they were young. She had worked for us about four years, coming in week days when I was employed full-time, and she was a sort of "half-grandmother and half-slave." I remember I had hired her with trepidation because she was frail and looked a decade or two older than her 70 years. But she was fabulous. She was always there despite her age and health—she had had some major operations over the years including the removal of most of her stomach. She loved to work—work was her hobby—and we had the cleanest house, including attic and basement, in all of Wisconsin. She was organized and intelligent, and she was kind to children. Our youngest, the only one not in school, adored her. For a year or two he called her "Bisitor," his version of visitor. Every morning he would eagerly meet her at the door, saying, "Hi, Bisitor, what are we going to bake today—cake or cookies?" One of her jobs—she had been widowed at an early age—had been as a baker, and she made fabulous cookies. We still remember with reverence her frosted chocolate turtle cookies. Every Monday morning she came toiling up our hill with an angel cake or something she had baked at her home over the weekend for our children. At Christmastime she brought a dishpan full of homebaked treats.
Even our cat loved her. She took stairs one at a time because of her joints, and one of my poignant memories is watching the cat, who liked to be around her, go up the stairs a few steps and then sit and wait for the old woman to catch up.
Our housekeeper seemed to think it reflected badly on her if I lifted a finger around the house, and I remember her first words many mornings, as I casually cleared the breakfast table, were, "Mrs. Gaylor, you put that down. That's my job. I'll take care of that." Surely no family was ever so pampered.
Asthma and accumulated ills finally forced her retirement, and a few years later she died. My husband and I attended her funeral and waited in vain for some word from the clergyman about her intrepid character, some reference to the years she had supported her three children by holding two jobs—days in a laundry and nights in a bakery. There was a great deal of mumbo-jumbo prayer at her bleak funeral, several references to a soul and everlasting life, but there were no words about her.
It is time, surely, to stash away the clergy. Services, with or without a corpse, can honor the person who has lived. Memorials can be planned with readings from favorite poets and writers, with music the person had enjoyed while living, with personal anecdotes told by friends—all of this could be so easily arranged.
I am up to here with the clergy—their laziness and their trivial, dimestore, carbon copy funerals. A memorial service should celebrate life, not death. It is much too important a ceremony and it has too much potential for substance, beauty and joy to be left to the clergy.
Reprinted from Lead Us Not Into Penn Station by Anne Nicol Gaylor.