Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Fun in Funeral

For someone who doesn't like funerals, I've sure been to a lot.

It's not that I have a particularly big family, it's just that I keep having less as time goes by.  I have now carried the coffins of my grandmother, my mother, my father and this week, my grandfather.  Always a pallbearer, never a corpse...

I would rather remember him as young and strong than as old and frail.

My grandpa died at the ripe old age of 94 and 10 months and I'm still in a bit of shock over it.  It didn't matter how old he got, on some level I always thought he would live forever.  This one cut deeper than I thought it would. He was the last parental figure I had left.  I don't think there is anyone else now who cares how I turn out or what I do with my life and that leaves me feeling so empty.  All I have now is the sadness of his passing.  And the regrets.  So many regrets...  I regret all the times I didn't call, I regret all the times I didn't make the time to talk to him, I regret all the worry I caused him, I regret not being someone he could be proud of.  In his death I see mirrored all my failings, every standard I failed to live up to, all the goals I never reached.  I think it's all the shame that blindsided me.  All the times I didn't call him because I knew he would ask about my life and I was too ashamed to tell him the truth so I never did and I never called and now I will never get to again.

My grandpa deserved a much better eldest grandson than the one he got.

At least he had a lot to be grateful for.  He lived for almost a century and gathered so much love along the way.  He had a long, happy marriage, children who loved him (of which he outlived only one) and a whole lot of grandchildren who are almost all prosperous, well adjusted and happily married adults now.  He even got to meet some of his great grandchildren which is more than most people can say I guess.  His mind stayed sharp his entire life and apart from his sight and hearing going by the end, he was in pretty good health.  He even kept all his hair!

Yeah that's me back when I was still cute...
At least the day wasn't just memorable for its sadness.  There was also some weirdness and some laughs, though now that I'm about to write it down I don't think you'll laugh...

At the grave there was this old guy in a suit and he was hugging and kissing everyone hello and leaning on my cousin all the way to the gravesite.  I never saw him before so I just assumed he was a far off family member I've never met.  Apparently so did everyone else.  He wasn't though, turns out no one knew him!  He was just a random stranger who showed up to a funeral to touch people.  And by touch I mean physically, not emotionally.  Just to be clear, he didn't do anything inappropriate.  Maybe he was just a lonely old man looking for some human contact.  That, or he was just a really weird pervert who gets off on consoling young ladies at funerals.  I guess we'll never know...

I also learned that the graveyard itself is segregated not only by race but also by faith and denomination.  I can only guess that this was masterminded by the department of applied theology so that come the Ressurection we can finally know which church had it right all along!  Telling people "I told you so!" before they go to eternal damnation is half the fun!

Also, just out of curiosity, how hard is it to be buried as a Jew?  The Jewish section was by far the part of the graveyard in the best condition.  I'm thinking that's the place to be after death!

The service was at the same place I had my last fun Pentecostal adventure a year ago and it certainly didn't disappoint.  The pastor managed to tone down the crazy at least though he did brandish an "authentic" shepherd's crook from the Holy Land at one point. He also managed get through an entire sermon without including any stories of his battles against the forces of Satan!  Still, it could just be me but the choice of "The Lord is my Shepherd" did seem a tad odd.  The entire service was wall to wall sheep anecdotes which is weird for a funeral because we all know what happens to a sheep once its life ends and it's never pretty...

I also got some fun pamphlets!  I got one on homosexuality which laid out the case for homosexuality being an abomination and a sin but at least it did include a small paragraph outlining the four simple steps to curing homosexuality.  It's in Afrikaans so if you're gay and were hoping to pray it away but can't read Afrikaans then I apologize to you dear reader.  You're just going to have to stay gay.

There was also a pamphlet on tithes and offerings which was basically just four pages of emotional blackmail to squeeze more cash out of congregants as well as little envelopes labeled ""Aircon" fund".  Not sure if it's a case of unnecessary quotation marks or if "Aircon" is what the pastor calls his new boat...

If I seem extra hard on the church for the finance stuff, it's because I'm more than a little pissed off about the way the church treated the funeral.  My grandfather was a lifelong, committed Christian.  He gave his time, energy and money to the the church for as long as he lived and yet when he died, the church acted more like a business than like a family.  We were charged for the sermon, there was a fee to open the church, there was a catering fee, etc, etc, etc.

But I'm not going to end this on a bitter note.  If you managed to read this far, congratulations, I know I've been all over the place.  That's kind of what my insides look like right now though.  It's pretty messy.  Despite all the sadness I am also left with love.  I loved my grandfather and I know he loved me.  When I speak of shame and regret, I need to be clear, he did not force those onto me.  He was never anything but kind, loving and interested in my life.  All the bad stuff I'm left with now spring from how I responded to that over the years.  So let that be a lesson to you.  If you have loved ones, let them in.  Let them know you, let them be a part of your life.  I can't tell you that it will make everything better.  I can just tell you that the alternative feels so much worse.


GumbyTheCat said...

My sincerest condolences, Eugene.

Your story has many parallels with my experience with my paternal grandmother's passing.

As I have hinted at in my blog, my family situation was pretty much fucked. My mother had managed to alienate everyone in the extended family, and also my father, who divorced her when I was two years old. I never saw my father or my extended family much after that; there was a Berlin Wall that seperated me from a large group of relatives I barely knew about.

Except for Grandma - she was the only one in the whole family who realized that the children were more important than petty family squabbles. We spent a lot of time together, and it really made me feel less awful about my fucked-up family.

Of course, time marched on, and the young boy who always was excited to go to Grandma's house gradually grew up. I gradually started to lose touch with her, because I was a Big Important Young Adult, you know?

But regardless, she still wrote me letters, and we talked occasionally on the phone. And every year for my birthday, she would send me a card, with a check for five dollars in it - she had done this since I was very young. I used to roll my eyes, because it meant an inconvenient trip to the bank to hassle with a piddly-ass five dollar check. I thought "Grandma's got plenty of money, what's with the five bucks?" So the last couple of checks I simply let languish on my desk. She would call occasionally, wondering why I hadn't deposited the checks. I assured her I would, told her I loved her, and that was that. And of course, ignorant self-centered young prick that I was, I never did cash those last checks.

She died in 1989 after a horrific battle with colon cancer. Luckily, I got to spend considerable time with her in her final months. During the funeral, my mind for some reason wandered back to the checks I had so callously neglected to cash, and I realized why, even knowing I was an adult, she still sent me the same tiny checks that she did when I was like 7 or 8. It was her way of reminding me that to her, I was always her little boy, her grandson, and that she would always love me. Man, I was devastated. Started bawling my eyes out, because by not cashing those checks, I was neglecting to acknowledge her grandmotherly love. Hell of a time to finally figure it out.

I have never forgiven myself for that, and for not talking to her much after I grew older. She broke family ranks to be my grandma, and I let her down. That's a hard thing to live with, and it is my shame to this day.

I think there are always regrets and self-recrimination when a beloved and respected family member dies. Not all of it is deserved, not even for you and me. We were guilty of being children who grew into adults, we were guilty of being self-centered in some ways.

But our elders are wiser than we are. They went through the same things when their elderly relatives died. And though they would have loved to have talked to us more than we let them as we grew older, they understood, and they did not love us any less for our failings. I take some consolation from that fact, and hopefully so will you.

Eugene said...

Just saying "thank you for sharing that" seems like such an inadequate response, but really, thank you for sharing that. It's a very touching story and I can certainly relate to it. Thank you!