…Lord it made me happy

Seeing all those people

I ain’t seen 

Since the last time somebody died* 

*the opening lines to Lyle Lovett’s Since the Last Time on his 1992 album “Joshua Judges Ruth”

I spent the weekend attending my mother’s visitation (Friday evening) and funeral (Saturday).  I probably breached the funeral etiquette described by Mark Twain, “Where a blood relation sobs, an intimate friend should choke up, a distant acquaintance should sigh, and a stranger should merely fumble sympathetically with his handkerchief” (as quoted in The Emotional Brain by Joseph LeDoux).  I could not muster even one tear, never mind the sobbing, and I didn’t have a handkerchief to fumble sympathetically with.  I knew I was supposed to cry, or something.  After all, she is, or was, my mother.  But all I could muster was a scowl for the way the pastor described my mother’s love for me and the rest of her family.  By the time he finished describing the woman, I began wondering if I had stumbled into the wrong funeral.   She wasn’t completely evil, but she certainly wasn’t a saint, which is pretty much true for everyone else that’s ever lived and died.   I’d never had a good relationship with her, but that’s probably as much my fault as it was hers.  It happens sometimes that parents and children just never psychically connect.

But why funerals?  Why burials?  Why gravestones and decorations and all that nonsense?  Why gather together a bunch of people who barely know each other to mourn someone’s passing?  Don’t people get by now that every life comes with a death, and that in the 10,000 year time period that the hymn Amazing Grace uses as exemplary of eternity (“when we’ve been there 10,000 years…”) , which is really nothing but the blink of a geologic eye, no one will even know we were ever here?  Well, except they might be able to dig up the near-mummified remains, especially those protected in the lead-lined vaults buried to house the caskets these days.  How are wealthy, or even just upper-middle-class Americans, anything more or less than petite Egyptian pharaohs?  Their McMansions are their pyramids, with the burial tombs located off-site.  These American odes to eternity will likely suffer the same fate as those of the pharaohs.  If it is discovered that valuables were buried with the body, like brass casket handles or gold fillings in the teeth, the remains likely won’t lie undisturbed for more than a century or two.  It was the rare pharaoh indeed that made it all of about 4,000 years to the present day without his pyramidal tomb being unceremoniously looted.  Some eternity. 

The funeral was a Christian affair, in so far as Methodism can be considered a Christian denomination.  I don’t understand, if the Christians believe that the reward for death is eternal bliss in heaven, why all the sad faces?  If one really believes in heaven, then wouldn’t death be preferable to life?  Shouldn’t a Christian funeral be a celebration?  As the black folks say, can’t I get me a hallelujah?  I’ve never quite understood why Christians don’t all just kill themselves and get on to heaven.  Is the human compulsion to suicide that comes with existential cognition the reason why the Jews decreed it the ultimate sin?  But the Jews didn’t believe in an afterlife.  For the Jews (at least historically), once dead, you stayed dead, so there was no reason for one of their faithful to assist entropy’s relentless march in the hope of gaining a sooner reward.  It would seem, given the Christian theological belief in an afterlife, that the belief in heaven must be coupled with a severe prohibition against suicide, else the Christians would have long ago made their collective exit. 

I don’t understand the idea of viewing the body.  It seems hideously macabre.  Is the purpose certification?  To ensure, through several eyewitnesses to the fact, that the person believed to be dead is also the one being buried?  For someone who is even remotely spiritual, how does a body have anything at all to do with the person’s soul after death?  My mother’s body looked hideous in that casket, not much better than she did the day she died, even after all the tidying up the funeral parlor attempted.  But my mom had already died by the last time I saw her alive.  She was just a mass of gurgling (the sound she made trying to breathe was reminiscent of Darth Vader–if he’d been afflicted with a severe cold), unconscious flesh riddled with an infection of her own body’s devise.  Cancer is an ironic killer.  It kills just like an infection, and acts just the same, yet it arises from within.

It struck me as I endured the pain of the visitation and funeral, a pain much more severe than the contemplation of life without my mother, that I would likely be doing this again when my son dies.  He’s had leukemia, twice.  The chances that he will outlive me, while not zero, are vanishingly small.  I would feel a much greater emotional loss at his passing than I did with my mother’s.  He still is a part of my daily existence.  But how in the world would a funeral help soothe the hurt?  The last thing I want to do when I’m in pain, emotional or otherwise, is be around any bunch of people, but particularly a bunch of people at a public funeral where probably half of the attendees are there to secretly rejoice at my misfortune. 

All this funeraling prompted me to pull out one of my all-time favorite albums.  Lyle Lovett grew up in East Texas in a culture that is not a lot different from the one in which I was raised, with perhaps a few more horses.  His album, “Joshua Judges Ruth” is something of his attempt to sort things out and explain how the people in his culture lived and died.   Since the Last Time, quoted above, is only one of the songs explaining how the culture deals with life and death and spirituality.  My favorite of the bunch is Family Reserve, which paints, in fine brush-strokes, what I figure is a pretty good view of eternity:

When I saw the ambulance

Screaming down Main Street 

I didn’t give it a thought 

But it was my Uncle Eugene 

He died on October the second 1981

And my Uncle Wilbert

They all called him Skinner 

They said for his younger days 

He’d get drunk in the morning 

And show me the rolls of fifties and hundreds 

He kept in the glove box of his old gray Impala

And we’re all gonna be here forever 

So Mama don’t you make such a stir 

Now put down that camera 

 And come on and join up 

The last of the family reserve

And there are more I remember

And more I could mention 

Than words I could write in a song 

But I feel them watching 

And I see them laughing 

And I hear them singing along

And we’re all gonna be here forever

So Mama don’t you make such a stir 

Now put down that camera 

And come on and join up

 The last of the family reserve…

Thanks, Lyle.  Indeed, we’re all gonna be here forever.   Perhaps just not in the way all those Christians burying, like a dog, the bones of their ancestors might imagine.