How To Be More Human: Attend A Funeral

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In March of my senior year in high school, we were granted what felt like the Holy Grail– an unexpected “day off” from classes because one of the five nuns who lived in the house behind our campus had passed away.  Sister Emmanuel hadn’t taught classes in years, but she was Beloved, and we all knew her as an animal lover and gentle presence in the back of the gym at all of our assemblies.

Our teachers passed out all of the funeral information, but I didn’t think it applied to me.  I didn’t know her; I’d never said two words to her.

The next morning, I slept in, because it’s hard to “get up and go” when you stay up until 11:00 PM doing helping your boyfriend do his homework.  As I lolled in bed, I thought about what I wanted to do that day.  With Spring Break looming and the temperatures creeping into the 60s, I decided it was imperative that I shop for a bathing suit.  A bikini that year, thanks to the wonders of following Weight Watchers for the preceding six months.

Some friends and I met up at Northpark Mall and tried on suits.  A quick lunch followed so we’d have the energy to slather our bodies with Hawaiian Tropics sun tan oil and lay out in someone’s back yard.

What a day! We’d accomplished so much.  I was proud that the pasty whiteness of my skin had disappeared behind the faintest golden tan.

“How was the funeral?” My dad asked at dinner.

Without even looking up, I mumbled through a bite of Weight Watchers baked chicken that I didn’t go.  “I skipped it to go to Dillard’s for a bathing suit.”

“What?” He said slowly, putting down his fork.  “What do you mean you ‘skipped the funeral to buy a bathing suit?'”

When I met his eyes, I understood for the first time that I’d done something really wrong.  Disrespectful.  I made a day of mourning in my community all about me.  Me in a bikini no less.  How vain; how teenagerish; how selfish.

My dad was (and is) the king of funerals– where most people attend them only for close friends or family members, his circle of people for whom he would attend the final goodbye extends out for layers and layers.  He would have never missed Sister Emmanuel’s funeral– his calculus would have nothing to do with his personal relationship with her; he would consider his presence a requisite show of respect for his community.

“Sorry, Dad, I didn’t realize–” I stopped because I wasn’t sure what to say.  “I’m sorry.”

I honestly didn’t know, even though I should have.  Moments before it had seemed victorious to find an Ocean Pacific two-piece on sale.  Now it felt like a scourge.

I’m not proud that it took me a few more years to learn that lesson– that funeral are sacred.  That we are privileged to celebrate a life at the end of its mortal existence.   That honoring life through a funeral is a vital part of what it means to be human.  That missing opportunities to engage with this rite is missing a chance to be more human and connected to others through grief.

As I wait for the information about a former co-worker’s memorial service, I prepare to teach my kids the same lesson. I forgive myself for the funerals I’ve missed for trivial reasons that still make me churn with shame.  I move forward.  I plan to attend the funeral.


18 thoughts on “How To Be More Human: Attend A Funeral

  1. Thank you for posting this. For what it’s worth, I do think it’s forgivable as a child/teenager. It only grates on my nerves when I hear a grown adult say, “I don’t do funerals. I just can’t handle it.” Unless there’s some kind of underlying psychological trauma here (e.g. you got locked in a room with a corpse as a child), there really is no excuse for this. It’s not about us, the living, except to celebrate the life now gone and to support others who are grieving that loss. You don’t have to know the exact right words to say, or shed the perfect tear. Just show up.

  2. I recently decided not to go to a friend’s father’s funeral and I regret it. Sure I had a laundry list of real reasons but they all felt like excuses after the fact. I believe you should show up — but I know it’s incredibly hard.

  3. I just finished watching the live webcast of the funeral of a girl a few years younger than I am who I grew up with, not knowing her super well, but definitely knowing her. And it was hard – always is hard – to bear witness to a funeral, but I agree with you that honoring a life in this way is sacred. And I have found that grief, in a way, is a great equalizer. It is in grief that we can glimpse people and connect with them at the most basic human level.

  4. I understand, I trained and worked with a lady for over 10 years. As did several of my coworkers. Yet several people didn’t show up for her mothers funeral. While I had never met her mother, it just seemed incredibly disrespectful to not be there to show my respects to my coworker, as she was grieving. Just my thoughts.

  5. I skipped my fair share of funerals when I was younger, mostly because I felt I didn’t know the person well enough. Having now been on the other side (the surviving family member) too many times, I realize how nice it is when unexpected people show up. I know now that it doesn’t matter how much you knew the person or the surviving family – it was so comforting to see people I barely knew or hadn’t seen in years at my mom’s service.

  6. I’m catching up on your last few posts, in part because in the past month hubby and I have made two winter road trips half-way across Canada for family funerals, in both cases an uncle of mine. Funerals ARE for the living, and there is no way to estimate the incredible value of that shared grieving and, if you’re fortunate, the shared stories and laughter along with the tears.

    We asked our 28-year-old son if he wanted to go to the first one with us, because he has become close to one daughter and son-in-law (my cousin and her husband) of the uncle who passed away. He said, “I don’t think so – I didn’t really know Uncle B.” Just as you said, young people don’t understand that you don’t go for the one who’s passed, you go for those who remain.

    I also find that my kids have very little experience with funerals – a few years ago my then-30-year-old daughter and I went to a funeral together and I couldn’t believe it was the first one she’d ever attended. Partly because so many people don’t have one now, and also because of generational differences – my husband and I got married young enough that my adult kids still have three of their four grandparents.

    Erinific is right that your presence at a funeral can be a great gift to those who are grieving. I have experienced this and am forever grateful for the friends who never met my father but who came to his funeral to support us.

    Great blog. Obviously it hit a chord with me right now, but it’s very thought provoking for anyone.

    • I’m surprised too about how many people don’t do them. My latest friend to pass away left strict orders for no ceremony of any kind. That makes me sad for me but of course we honor her wishes.

      Thank you for the thoughtful response. I’m still mulling all this over. I will be for a while.


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