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Kerry WeberJanuary 14, 2022
Photo by Panyawat Auitpol on Unsplash

By my mother’s count, I attended at least 15 wakes and funerals by the time I turned 12. It was not until I became an adult that I realized my experience was not shared by many of my peers, for whom waiting in lines at wakes was not an after-school activity.

I went because my mother went, who went because her mother went. And when I say my mother went because her mother went, it was not because my mother was coerced or prodded, but rather because she learned from my grandmother that This Is What We Do. This is how we show up for one another. How we honor friendships. This is how we get through the pain and help others get through theirs. My mother says my grandmother’s record was three wakes in a single evening.

The list of those mourned during my childhood included my paternal grandfather, who died of mesothelioma before I turned 2 after a lifetime of fitting pipes with asbestos; my Aunt Kitty, who wasn’t technically my aunt but my grandmother’s best friend; my Great Aunt Helen, who used to serve me and my brother Kraft singles alongside tea with unlimited amounts of sugar. Eventually, my funeral list included my maternal grandmother herself and, a few short years later, my maternal grandfather. Both were waked at Sampson’s Funeral Parlor, where, after paying my respects, I roamed the maze-like halls with my cousins while stocking up on cheap combs and mini packs of Kleenex, all the while feeling somewhat guilty that I had enjoyed the limo ride from the church.

This is a long way of saying that I come from an Irish Catholic family.

•••

A recent article in The Washington Post described President Biden’s long-time dedication to attending funerals, a task the author describes as one “frequently caricatured as the purview of vice presidents.” In other words it is something that we know we should do, but would rather have someone else do on our behalf. President Biden’s habit is likely based in his own Irish Catholic heritage. He also draws on his own experience with grieving the death of his first wife and daughter in 1972 and the death of his son Beau in 2015. He seems to know what my grandmother knew about funerals and grief—that This Is What We Do—despite the fact that through the years his staffers have, at times, urged him to do almost anything else.

For many people these days, attendance at funerals has become fraught and, at times, impossible as the Covid-19 pandemic has limited the number of mourners allowed to gather. Some memorial services have been put on hold indefinitely. But the rare observance of the tradition has also served as a reminder that they matter.

The funeral Mass, Father Morrill says, is “a kind of counterpoint to the grief. It doesn’t erase the grief, but it is a hopeful, forward-looking ritual.”

“Ritual is what humans do to help each other navigate through life’s ambiguities,” Bruce Morrill, S.J., the Edward A. Malloy Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Vanderbilt University, tells me. And for Catholics the funeral Mass helps point us to the promise of everlasting life. It uses the sad occasion of the death of a loved one to remind us that the Eucharist is always “a foretaste of the heavenly banquet,” Father Morrill says. The funeral Mass, he says, is “a kind of counterpoint to the grief. It doesn’t erase the grief, but it is a hopeful, forward-looking ritual.”

If all this sounds familiar, it should: This strange juxtaposition of death and life is what we are reminded of every Sunday at Mass. Father Morrill argues that good preaching on a typical Sunday can lay the groundwork needed to give us the courage and the theology required to support others in grief or bear our own when a death occurs. “Grief is difficult, and accompanying the grieving is not easy,” Father Morrill says. “But this is the most important stuff in life and the most enriching in the long haul.”

Several years ago I attended the funeral of a dear friend’s father. I was able to remain composed until I saw an elderly man and woman from the parish carrying candles in the processional. They were wearing blue blazers that marked them as the servers for the day. And something about the blazers broke me. They looked like schoolchildren ready for an assignment—the assignment being to help the congregation to move within a cloud of grief, to lead us onward, tiny flames aloft. It is hard to know what to do or how to feel when we are grieving, but there is a weird sort of comfort in knowing that someone somewhere wrote down the prayers and the order of events and sent these white-haired candle bearers to walk us through it.

•••

Our tendency, at times, is not to walk through the grief at all, to avoid it at all costs. The Catholic funeral stands in marked contrast to the increasingly popular modern custom of holding a “celebration of life,” which Father Morrill describes as “entirely focused on the past.” He cited celebrations themed around golf or ice cream. He once read about a funeral director—who preferred the term funeral concierge—who described the dead body as a “downer.”

“We are in a culture that does not want to sit, even briefly, with termination, with full-stop, The End, and doesn’t want to look at our mortality,” says Father Morrill. The dominant culture, he says, is one that is “death concealing and death denying,” rooted in “a consumerist culture that denies the limits of our physical nature and existence and the limits of time.” It is a culture that opens stores at 4 a.m. on Black Friday and keeps people working late on Christmas Eve. It urges us to surgically alter our bodies rather than show signs of age. In a culture of limitless consumption it is easy to ignore the fact that our time on earth is finite.

The dominant culture, he says, is one that is “death concealing and death denying.”

Yet there are signs that the desire to acknowledge death remains alive. Death Cafes have sprung up, gatherings held specifically to talk about death over tea and cake. Virtual memorial services for those who have died of Covid-19. Podcasts like “Death, Sex & Money,” which intentionally tackles death among other hard topics.

In high school, I was excused from class to attend the funeral Mass of my friend’s grandfather. The church was within walking distance of our campus, and two friends and I took the long way back—through a small park, and down a few extra side streets with signs bearing the descriptor “thickly settled”—to process our grief. But the long gray skirts of our Catholic school uniforms were easy to spot, and one of the nuns from school happened to drive by in a car that was probably a Camry. As the sole faculty witness to the only 15 minutes of my high school career when I was not exactly where I was supposed to be, she pulled over and strongly suggested we start making our way back to class.

All too often, our society applies that same type of pressure when people are trying to grieve, pushing us to return to our normal lives, cutting short the meandering path that grief often requires.

•••

Every so often my mother reminds me that she does not want her obituary—to be clear, there is no indication that one will be needed anytime soon—to announce that she has “passed on to her eternal reward,” or has been “called home” or that she has “joined the angels.” She wants us to get to the point. “Make sure you just say that I died,” she says.

It is possible that my mother’s own comfort with the topic of death has been formed through her constant exposure to it, which has left her with the understanding that, while sad, and sometimes tragic, death is also inevitable.

“How do we convince people that death is not the worst thing in the world?” asks Joyce Rupp, O.S.M, author of May You Find Comfort: A Blessing for Times of Grieving. “It’s by coming close to death and not being so afraid of it.” A good funeral offers the mourners a kind of near-death experience.

The three-part restored Order of Christian Funerals, by design, gives us space at the vigil or wake service to remember our loved ones—Father Morrill suggests this is the best place to share happy memories of the deceased. At the funeral we are asked to look ahead. And at the grave we are urged to be present. The rite says to us: It is O.K. to stop for a moment, to feel everything, to not be distracted or be productive.

No one wants to be at a funeral. It means that a loss has occurred, hearts broken. But there are few other instances in which doing something we dread so deeply can mean so much.

The wake is followed by the future-oriented funeral. The burial that follows places the grieving “profoundly in the present moment,” Father Morrill says. The burial rite is short, and “all it asks of the people are the things we know by heart—the Sign of the Cross, Lord be with you, Lord have mercy, the Lord’s prayer. It acknowledges there’s not a lot you can say in this moment, but we are here together.”

In the days following my grandmother’s wake, my grandfather sat down and looked through the book of names of people who had attended. More than 800 people had shown up, filed by her body, shaken his hand, hugged him, laughed and cried with him. And when my grandfather died, so great was the crowd that would miss him that it included the cashiers at the nearby CVS, who came through to offer their condolences.

Psalm 34 tells us that “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, saves those whose spirit is crushed.” Sometimes the people who sold your grandfather toothpaste can also save you.

•••

No one wants to be at a funeral. It means that a loss has occurred, hearts broken. But there are few other instances in which doing something we dread so deeply can mean so much. Yet it is easy to feel pressure to find the perfect, appropriate words of comfort or to feel responsible for relieving the pain. But my mother, my grandmother, President Biden and all those who make the effort to show up on these dark days know that sometimes all you need to do is to sit still with your mouth shut and your heart open.

Sometimes all you need to do is to sit still with your mouth shut and your heart open.

Sister Rupp knows this firsthand. She volunteered with hospice care for 15 years and has written extensively on death and grief. But even she acknowledges having once felt the pressure so many feel to find the right thing to say to the grieving at a funeral or wake. The pressure lessened when she realized she didn’t need to say anything at all. In fact, she says, “I have found the less you say the better.”

For those who are nervous about attending a funeral or wake, she urges, “Trust that presence makes a difference.” There is kinship, she says, in knowing that we are not the only ones suffering.

She recalled the time, a few years back, when a colleague’s mother died. On the day of the funeral Sister Rupp’s schedule was packed, and she considered not attending. In the end she knew that going was the right thing to do. She arrived unceremoniously, sat in the small crowd and departed without saying much, if anything. It was not until just a few weeks ago that the colleague who had lost her mother said to Sister Rupp: “I still can see you, where you were sitting in the church that day. And I was so glad that you were there.”

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