John McCain, the senator from Arizona, died recently. I never met the man, so I have no first hand knowledge of what kind of person he was, but I certainly knew of him, had seen his image on television frequently, had listened to him speak and had respected much of what he had to say. When he died, it made not only national news, but international news, his death even reported in Vietnam where he had been held as a prisoner of war. Hundreds if not thousands showed up for his funeral, and many millions watched at least some of it on the news. By most measures, Senator McCain's life was extraordinary.
When I die, I doubt there will be as many as a hundred people who take note, and I would bet that there will be less than two dozen people who attend my funeral Mass. The other six billion, nine hundred ninety-nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty (plus or minus) other people in the world will too busy to notice. I'm not actually upset with that, although it might be argued that since I take the time to write about it indicates that it bothers me at some level, but I see it more as more of a sociological exercise, an observation of how people view death has changed in the span of my lifetime.
Funerals were much bigger events when I was young. When someone died, there was a four day viewing at the funeral home. We would dress befitting a formal affair, women in dresses, hats, gloves, men in suits, and we would plan to spend perhaps several hours at the viewing because over those four days, the entire extended family would pass through. There were a lot of family matters discussed and lots of what today we would call "networking." There were more than just family there, of course. Neighbors would come, people from work, and even people who might not have known the deceased but wished to express their sympathies to one of their friends who was related to the deceased would wander on in for a while. When the priest would arrive to lead a rosary for the deceased (generally the night before the burial), the funeral home would be overflowing with people, literally standing room only. The day of the burial, the funeral home would organize the caravan of cars that would follow the hearse to the church for the Mass and then to the cemetery for interment. They would place a little flag on roof of the car that would identify it as part of the funeral procession, signaling other drivers to yield to the procession so that all the cars would stay together. There were no laws that allowed the cars in the procession to ignore traffic lights or stop signs, but that's what happened, and I don't recall anybody being upset by that, even when there were, as often was the case, twenty or thirty cars with flags.
I know that one of the reasons for these large numbers was that families were bigger then. My grandfather had nine kids. They all married and had kids of their own, and since my grandfather lived to a ripe old age, even some of the grandchildren were married by the time he died. People also tended to stay put a little more back then, so that most of the relatives lived within short distances of each other. My Uncle Frank, the eldest son, lived literally just a few houses down the street from my grandfather, four other sons lived with easy walking distance, and the rest of the family stayed in the city. My grandfather died in the house that he built in his youth.
I had only two brothers. They were born about three years apart, but the younger brother is nine years older than I am. They both left home as soon as they graduated from high school and for most of their adult lives lived in other states. The five of us (parents and sons) gave family life the old college try at times, but we were never on the same page. Years could go by between times when we were all together, and even then, there was a lot of tension. I remember once being told by my oldest brother that he no longer considered me a brother because I had allowed my other brother to visit me. Apparently he and my other brother were at odds over a spat the younger brother was having with my parents who had done something to insult his wife. Family life was exhausting, and when I had the opportunity to move two thousand miles away, I took it and never looked back.
My brothers and my parents are all gone. To the best of my knowledge, there were no funerals for any of them. My father was the first of them to die. We all knew it was coming. I had bought a new suit in anticipation of the funeral and wondered if perhaps I would be a pallbearer. I had only been a pallbearer once before, when I was young. You'd think that I would remember who we were burying, but I honestly don't. It was probably my grandfather, but I'm not sure. I was young enough to simply be caught up in the ritual and to consider it a kind of coming of age moment, getting to act in an adult role. I would have been honored to be one of my father's pallbearers, but it was not to be. Apparently it was Dad's request that there be no funeral and no burial. He was cremated, and the container holding his ashes was sent home with my mother to live on the attic stairs. Eventually my mother scattered the ashes (surreptitiously and illegally) on the cemetery grounds that hold the remains of other members of his family.
I say that was "apparently" in accord with my father's wishes because I don't really know what they were. It struck me as odd. My father was pious man although by no means scrupulous. I use "pious" here in the strict sense of having a dutiful spirit of reverence for God. Like many Catholics, the theological underpinnings of his faith were grounded in what he learned in grade school, but all his life he faithfully attended Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and participated in the sacraments. He was always supportive and seemed genuinely interested in my own participation in church, even when I left a good paying job and went to work full time at a parish at half the money, so it just seemed odd that at the end of his life, he would purposely not avail himself of the beauty and comforts of a funeral Mass.
I understand the argument that funerals are for the living, not the dead. From an eschatological point of view, I know that death is a point of irrevocability -- one has either made one's peace with God, or has not, and there is nothing the rest of us can do to alter that after death. Still, there is a particular beauty to the Church's Funeral Liturgy. It is comforting and respectful. The Final Commendation and Farewell is particularly poignant. It is a prayer in which the community calls on the angels of God to come and meet the soul of the deceased and escort it into the presence of God.
Saints of God, come to her aid! Hasten to meet her, angels of the Lord! May Christ, who called you, take you to himself; may angels lead you to the bosom of Abraham.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. Receive her soul and present her to God the Most High.
Merciful Lord, turn toward us and listen to our prayers: open the gates of paradise to your servant and help us who remain to comfort one another with assurances of faith, until we all meet in Christ and are with you and with our sister for ever. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
I don't find the sentiment here to be all that different than the Greek custom of the coin in the mouth of the deceased to pay Charon the ferryman for the passage across the river Styx. In both cases, there is an acknowledgement that death is not an end but a transition, and our prayers (or our coin) are in support of that process. In Greek mythology, however, Charon transported only those souls who had received the burial rites. If there had been no rites, if there was no coin, the souls were condemned to wander the banks of the river as ghosts. It is this last part perhaps that leaves me with the uneasy feeling about not having a proper burial. There is no equivalent Catholic teaching here. The Church does not require its members to have any kind of burial ceremony. There is nothing to indicate that if we don't call the angels they won't come, there is nothing to suggest that there is anything other than our death that is needed to initiate the transition to the afterlife. Funerals are no more necessary for the dead than are birthday parties for the living -- neither will alter the inevitable -- yet both are really a celebration of life and an embracing of its transitory nature.
It may well be that Dad did not want a funeral Mass, or to have his ashes interred anywhere in particular, though the thought crossed my mind that my mother spitefully denied him a Catholic burial. She bore a very deep animosity toward him in their latter years, and spoke venomously about him (to me at least if not publicly) even after he died. My mother could charitably and euphemistically have been described as a "troubled soul," and so being vengeful was well within her character, except that she was a pious woman, with a piety that tended toward scrupulosity. If there was anyone who I might have thought would have been the stickler for religious ritual, it would have been her, but then maybe she had no need to be comforted.
I make it sound like I had a crazy-ass family and I got out of there just in time, but if I'm going to be fair, I have always had difficulty with interpersonal relationships. I've recently done a bit better with family -- I live in a multi-generational household that includes my wife, my adult daughter, her husband and her two children. Remarkably, we get along pretty well. We may get on each other's nerves at times, but we identify as a loving household. They will be five of the two dozen people at my funeral, assuming my wife survives me. If she goes first, there will probably be only one dozen people at my funeral because I'm guessing that ten or eleven of those in the pews will be her friends that show up to support her. I no longer have any contact with my extended family -- no aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws -- and I have very few friends. I don't make friends easily, and I was never any good at networking. I attended one Rotary meeting in my life (at the urging of my employer), and the only thing I remember is the relief that I did not get saddled with the live chicken in a cage that was given to a new member who had to bring the chicken to each meeting until such time as they recruited another new member. There was only one chicken and it was in the possession of the last unfortunate novice. Maybe it's me, maybe I should see the humor there, but I don't suffer chickens gladly, and have never learned how, even though I know that my inability to network had limited my career. I walked away from two reasonably lucrative positions because I refused to toady up to the right people. Anyway, I saw it as a matter of toadying, but like I said, I have always had difficulty with interpersonal relationships.
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that there the difference between the attendance at my funeral and that of John McCain's is in no small part due to the fact that I didn't play any team sports in high school, hated pep rallies, never joined a club or fraternity, had no memberships in any professional organization, avoided as many social invitations as I possibly could, and left early from family gatherings that I could not avoid.
So why would I even want a funeral Mass? And how do I answer that question without sounding like a bad televangelist?
The short answer is that it is right and just.
Should you be Catholic, you might recognize the phrase "right and just" from the opening dialogue of Eucharistic Prayer said at each Mass. The priest calls the assembly to the task at hand saying "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God." The assembly signals its readiness and acknowledges the importance of the actions that the Church is about to undertake by answering "It is right and just." Admittedly not everyone answers, and for a distressing number who do it is the same kind of ritual exchange as the workplace greeting "Morning, how are ya?" We don't really want to know how anybody is, and all we really expect to hear is "Fine, how are you?" However, if you are of the mind to follow the Church's prompt, the idea of "right and just" can be illuminating.
Death is an event of great consequence in one's life. (It's fair to insert here an editorial "duh.") At the very least it is a finale, the end of an extraordinary, improbable natural event. One can almost hear David Attenborough saying "and so, what began as the simple division of a single cell and grew to a being capable of space travel, art and philosophy, now ends and returns to the basic elements of the earth from which it came." I think more probably death is an auspicious occasion. I've got no proof, but I have a lot of popular support in my way of thinking that death is a transition, the next step in life. Death requires recognition; it should be done justice. There should be sufficient mourning, sufficient celebration, sufficient dignity afforded to the universal act of surrender to our nature. No matter what illusions or delusions we've had of life, all is resolved at death.
If justice is to be done to death, then I would want whatever is done to be appropriate and fitting and to be done correctly, to be done right. That is not to imply that there is a wrong way to die. It's pretty obvious that once you are dead, you are as equally dead as those who came before you, and no matter the how glorious or how plain the manner of your funeral, you won't be better or worse dead than anybody else. Still, I would hope that the circumstances of my funeral would be proper so as not to waste anybody's time or to be frivolous, and to be honest, I don't know that I could come up with any novel way of approaching my funeral that would be appropriate. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel on this. I would like to go with the traditional way of my religion. The Church has been burying people for more than a thousand years and has a process that seems very right to me.
John McCain was an extraordinary individual, and the world could do with more like him, but I'm obviously not John McCain. There will be no state funeral when I'm gone. I would however like the circumstances of my passing to be a time to pause and reflect on the genuinely extraordinary fact that life exists at all and to ponder the possibility that death is not its end. That would be right and just.
Full disclosure: These essays are supposed to be "written using only information from memory." I admit that I did look up the Final Commendation and Farewell, but only to ensure the exact wording. The gist of the prayer and my reaction to it are firmly rooted in my memory, so I don't consider that as cheating.