On Funerals And What They Don’t Mean

I was back down in Jamestown skiing last Sunday–I thought I’d update my thoughts of funerals, published originally last August:

Sunday, 10:30 a.m., sunny, no wind, dry air. The deportment of the small but sober looking crowd in the parking lot in the cool air at Fort Wetherill in Rhode Island said either: A) funeral; or B) religious service. Perhaps the two were a bit one.

As more cars parked and people stepped out for greeting, the handshakes, the hugs, the tears were unmistakable. Funeral. I knew where this group would go–the nearby natural exalted rock stage, right where there is a view of the Atlantic and of Newport that, simply put, money can’t buy. Not a more grand sight in New England. So, I had to huddle with the little guy and wife in the uncomfortable rocks by the side of the cliff we had been going to sit on…I am sensitive to these things.

The mourners filed onto the cliff. More tears; some of the grieving dropped flowers into the outgoing tide 40 feet below; I saw what I took to be a small urn pass hands. My brain’s opera hall echoed with a strain from neolithic times; to peat bogs in North Europe; to sad apes trying to piece something together after a death.

Among the couples, I noted the old woman who lacked a man. She received special gentle deference. I assumed it was her husband that was the missing. And I guessed the ashes being handed off, perhaps, had been a grandfather. A sire of mighty children? Maybe a fool or knave? Or a mix of all three? I don’t know. But looking at the expanse of ocean, I thought the gesture of the flowers indescribably sad and lovely.

Then a small unlovely fisherman, pole in hand, in red cap and jeans, broke into the tribal congregation. “Gonna bring me some luck?” he asked. I assume he didn’t read the signs–admittedly unwritten, though obvious. Then he took his perch in a cleft of the rock to ply his own crude, yet serene, and ancient art.

How perfect.

A few months ago I attended a funeral service in a VFW hall. The man who’d passed had suffered terribly; was good and decent. His grandchildren were comfortable enough to play on and around his coffin, whose lid was up. The body stared up as the kids, who’d really loved him, went about their business of being children. I’ve never seen anything more lovely.

Across the universe, some intelligence watches (maybe) this kind of a gesture. Does it understand tears, the craving for meaning? Does it wonder why something as weak and transitory as a human ape holds a ritual to remember what represents a drop in an irresistible Niagara of progress? Does it cry with us? Laugh? Scratch its head?