What they remember

Yesterday I met with a family to plan a funeral. The deceased was not a person that I had known. I had met him briefly on one previous occasion and had read his obituary. Obviously I came into the meeting without enough information to tell his life story and without enough information to do a good job officiating at his funeral. So I was listening carefully and paying attention to details and nuances as his family spoke about him. What I heard was a fascinating story about an intelligent and thoughtful man who had done many different things in his life. At one point in the conversation, his daughters spoke about his enjoyment of certain public television shows. I have enjoyed the same shows. One of the shows they mentioned was “Waiting for God,” a British situation comedy.

I decided to watch an episode of the show just to refresh my memory about the kinds of jokes and the type of humor it portrayed. It is easy to watch old television shows because many of them are available on YouTube. I pulled up a random episode. If you are unfamiliar with the series, the stories are set at Bayview Retirement Home a facility whose manager is Harvey. Harvey is a very self-centered individual, concerned mostly with the bottom line and how the financial performance of the institution will reflect on his career. His assistant, Jane, is completely devoted to him, though he pays no attention to her affections. They provide the counter to two residents, Tom and Diane, who are constantly thinking of ways to make Harvey’s life more miserable as a way of dealing with the boredom of their situation. Tom is prone to wild fantasies and tells stories that obviously are not true. Diane appears to be continually grumpy and gruff, but has a tender heart somewhere under that exterior. In the episode that I watched yesterday there is another important character, Dick Sparrow, who is the vicar at the local church. Sparrow is portrayed as completely incompetent, forgetting the name of the baby he is christening, inserting lines from weddings into funerals and making other mistakes. In other episodes his sermons are so boring that he literally falls asleep while preaching. The theme of an incompetent vicar seems to be common in British sit coms. In this particular episode, a man who was 90 years old has died after a very brief stay at Bayview. He had been an insurance agent and was seen by the other residents as a very boring man. The vicar launches into a eulogy of a young rock star who used drugs extensively and who was killed in a hang gliding accident in the Swiss Alps. His rantings are a horror to Jane and a delight to Tom and Diane who keep laughing.

I would never try to imitate the character in a comedy as part of what I do in a funeral or in any other worship service. While I am quite capable of laughing at a character ini a drama and I think that it is healthy for us to laugh at ourselves, a funeral is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the grieving family and they deserve the highest and best effort that we can invest in making sure that the service is meaningful and personal.

Still, watching the program got me to thinking. The man whose funeral we will observe today was, in fact, a very fascinating man who had many interests and whose many interests might not have been evident to those who knew him for only part of his life. This was especially true at the very end of his life when a degenerative condition had left him needing a wheelchair for mobility. The doctors and nurses who met him at that stage of his life might never have known that he was once an avid skier, roaming around the intermountain west in search of perfect powder. Other patients in the hospital might not have realized that he had been a race car owner and driver and once owned and operated a drag race course. People who spoke with him near the end of his life might not have learned that he was a brilliant student who completed vocational school and high school at the same time and earned a degree in electrical engineering while raising his family and operating his own business. There are so many stories of his life that it does seem a bit possible that someone who had recently met him would come to his funeral and learn things that they did not know.

I’m often told by people who attend funerals at which I officiate that they learned something new about the person whose life we celebrated. The truth is that we are complex and fascinating beings that there is often more to a person than immediately meets the eye.

One of the gifts of my vocation is that I am allowed into the homes of families at key and vulnerable moments. I am allowed to plunge deeply into a family story that had previously taken place outside of the range of my experience and knowledge. I am privileged to share intimate details of lives that are hidden from others. These fascinating and wonderful stories are, of course, not my stories to tell. It would be wrong for me to simply repeat the details of conversations I share with others. But there are occasions such as funerals and weddings when I am allowed to give a glimpse at aspects of others in the context of recognizing the significance of their lives and the significance of particular moments in their lives.

These moments are fleeting. Today’s funeral is not about me or about what I say. At least some of those who attend will never hear me speak again and will even remember my name a while form now. What I do hope is that they remember the person whose life we honor. I hope they remember that he was a complex and nuanced individual with many varied interests and many unique abilities. I hope they remember the sense that this life was a gift from God and that death is not the end. I hope they will be able to tell the story with both laughter and tears.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!