The Gift of Funerals

I went to a funeral today. It was for a gentleman with whom I used to sing, a sweet, kind, gentle, slightly pushy but never gruff man named Al.

Al wasn’t terribly young, but he wasn’t terribly old; I don’t know his exact age, because there was no program with the printed dates of birth and death on the cover, but I’d guess he was in his early 70s. He was a big man, but I didn’t get a chance to know how big until I went to the service this morning.

His family was small; his wife, Mary, their daughter Susan, her husband and their two daughters and one son. He had two brothers, and a best friend. A few nieces and nephews completed the roll, it seemed, and perhaps some cousins. But the center section of the church was nearly full, and before the first reading of the Mass, it was easy to understand why.

Albert had been a teacher; I knew that, though I can’t be sure what he had taught. Had it been music? Or English? I knew that my music director, Ed, had been his student. He had known Al since the age of 14. That was 45 years ago. Aside from the fullness of the church (something relatively unusual for an older gentleman whose family wasn’t very large), the first thing I noticed was the number of priests celebrating the Mass. This funeral was at my church; Al and I sang together in the church choir, and several fellow members had gathered to say goodbye to him. But there were four priests and a deacon on the altar. Two of the priests, I’d never seen before.

I came to understand through the service that one of them had worked with Albert at a retreat house for periodic weekends of reflection. The other had known him for years through a looser affiliation. The deacon was ours, and the pastor. The main celebrant used to be assigned to our parish and had been on the faculty at the school where Al had taught before he retired. I’m fairly certain he’d been a student of Al’s, as well.

When you get four priests and a deacon to celebrate your funeral, you’ve lived right.

The funeral began, unusually, with the eulogy. It was delivered by one of Albert’s nephews, a man I’d put in his late 40s. His name was Andy, and his writing was full of flourish. His delivery was firm and theatrical. It didn’t take long to realize that this was not necessarily because it was Andy’s nature (although I suspect it was), but because this was Albert’s nature. Albert was a man who loved the arts. Loved them. He surrounded himself with them, all kinds. Andy’s soliloquy was full of color – literally. He invoked all the crayons in the big box of Crayolas that most self-respecting men would never use in description of life: periwinkle, lavender, cobalt, light orange, fuchsia, and seafoam green.

He pronounced this last color with a great deal of weight and zeal.

Apparently Albert loved the color sea foam green, because his whole family laughed out loud.

Andy’s requiem for Al went on with demonstrative phrases about garden party invitations and what I can only assume was Al’s fondness for prompt guests who could handle being needled. It described him, I imagine mostly poetically but with a good deal of truth (indicated by the family’s laughter) as a man who literally commanded the flowers on how to behave. (“I can get the gardenias to sit up with just a stare,” he apparently mimicked.) He painted a picture of a man fond of “the show, the production;” someone who wanted things to be just right. In my several years’ knowledge of Al, I never found him to be prickly, but he was quite precise about how to pronounce the word “kyrie” when singing. He usually upstaged Ed to instruct the choir on it. At least twice a year.

It always made me smile.

Al smiled a lot. He had a sweet, round face- round everything, really – he was rotund – and incredibly soft and smooth hands. I know because every time he saw me he’d put out a hand to hold mine for a moment. He had a silky, sonorous voice that didn’t boom and wasn’t imposing, but could convey authority when called upon.  I got the impression more than once that being the former teacher was a bit of a struggle for Albert; though he was usually able to keep quiet and just follow along (often a bit behind the beat due to a loss of hearing or reflexive rhythm, either of which came with age), there were moments when he was inclined to lecture on the music we were singing in rehearsal.

It became apparent through Andy’s eulogy and, later, Father Jerry’s, that Al infused his life with the arts: music, theater, literature and painting. And through these words offered by these men who had loved him in different, but equally moving ways, I got a brighter, clearer picture of the man I had known, too.

The readings accomplished the same thing. Most Catholics are pretty familiar with the standard funeral fare, but these were not presented in the standard way, and, in one case, a reading was not the common fodder of funerals at all. Rather, it was the reading from 1 Corinthians, the one that so many people have at their weddings, instead:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

What a thing to say at a funeral.

And how absolutely right it is to say it there.

That reading was presented – not “read,” no; presented– in a wholly unpretentious but beautifully intepreted way by Albert’s friend and fellow theater lover. Clearly this man was an actor, but he did not act this passage of scripture. He knew it. It’s not just that he barely looked at the text as he went; it’s that he felt the words as he said them. For 21 years, I’ve known this was important in singing: in order to convey the proper message in the sound, regardless of the language, you have to know what you’re saying. But I had never heard this rote reading presented in such a way.

And I never want to hear it any way other than this again.

Seriously, I’m flying this guy in to do it at weddings wherever I go.

Al would have adored it. He would have adored the harmony our altos and basses sang impromptu in the hymns his family chose – standard hymns for a funeral, as they generally go, but lovely. And apparently, he would have loved the fact that we sang “God Bless America” at the end. I was thrown when the organ started its opening strains; we had sung it at the end of Mass last week, and I was worried  momentarily that Holly, the accompanist, had spaced out and started playing something that had been left on her music stand in the organ pit. But  no, soon enough I realized this was quite deliberate. Al would want his funeral service to end with a blessing on the country he loved.

I wondered if he had served; there had been no mention.

So many times, I find myself leaving funerals wishing I had known the honored dead better in life. I have learned so much about them in that brief time sitting in the pew, listening to those who loved them most tell their life stories. I’ve learned about friends’ traits and characteristics, before then untraced to previous owners, and realized, “Oh, that’s where he gets it!” I’ve come to know friends better by attending their parents’ funerals.

I’ve written a eulogy or two, and delivered them, and I’m sure that those who didn’t know my honored dead the way I knew them left feeling the same way. But I’m not saddened by the lost chance; Al and I didn’t come into each other’s lives until about eight years ago. Rather, I’m so happy to know that those who knew him best got to live his love for life through him so boldly.

What a gift a funeral is.

I’m so glad I went.

Long may you rest, and well, Albert. I will miss your smile and your softness, and I will think of you, as I do so many others, when I sing.

“The Gift of Love” by Hal Hopson
This is not our choir’s recording, but it is a piece we have sung many times, with Albert in the tenor section.


4 thoughts on “The Gift of Funerals

  1. I’ve been to my share of funerals, and I have to say that I dread them. Some more than others. This is such a wonderful way of looking at it – as a celebration of a person’s life and a way to remind ourselves and each other how important it is to carry on what was good in that person.

    Thanks for this.

    • Welcome. 🙂 It just struck me as I was sitting there that I was lucky to go. Funerals are so confusing in that we find ourselves feeling strange joys in some moments of them – hearing funny stories or learning something revealing. It can be exhausting to roll through all those emotions. But thank goodness we have the funny stories and personal revelations to make us laugh or smile.

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