The Universal Notebook: What I like about funerals

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At the risk of sounding glib or ghoulish, I must say I do enjoy a good funeral. And that’s a good thing because, by my own unreliable count, I attended at least eight over the past year.M y father-in-law and one of my brothers-in-law died last year, as did a family friend and five or six members of the church where I serve as a deacon.

I would, of course, wish them all back among the living, but that not being possible, I have come to appreciate the consolations of a good funeral, a good funeral being one that both celebrates the life of the deceased and lifts up the living, letting them know their loved one was loved and that they are not alone.

When I was a kid, I avoided funerals assiduously, mostly because corpses in caskets, the waxen-faced dead supine on white satin, gave me the creeps. These days, you rarely see a casket at a funeral and, if you do it’s closed. I prefer it that way (actually I prefer cremation), but I sometimes wonder what long-term effects it will have on people who never actually see their dead. Something tells me we might be better off cherishing the bones like elephants, rather than avoiding the physical realities of death.

Most of the funerals I attend and assist are really memorial services. The remains have been disposed of in advance and the assembled are there to pray, sing, praise, tell stories, console, and be consoled. The best part of any funeral is hearing family and friends talk about the departed. There is a healing that takes place when you share your feelings, thoughts, and memories.

One of my brothers was recently at a funeral where the officiating member of the clergy tried to deny him an opportunity to speak on the grounds that sometimes people said inappropriate things at funerals. Censoring a memorial service makes no sense to me. Nor does forgoing personal remembrances because, as occurred at one funeral I attended (not at our church), the deceased had requested a short, simple service with no testimonials. It was the worst funeral I’ve ever attended. Funerals are not for the dead; they are for the living.

That being so, the best funerals tend to be equal parts laughter and tears. In fact, the best funeral I ever attended was that of everyone’s good friend Tim. The nicest guy anyone had ever met, Tim was way too young when he died, but he went with grace and dignity and his spirit pervaded his memorial service. It was funny, irreverent, moving, heartbreaking, uplifting, human. I tear up whenever I think of it.

I’m also a sap when it comes to the playing of “Taps.” I’m not a big military buff, but the solemn beauty of a uniformed member of the armed services playing those few mournful bars for an old veteran always gets to me. It did at the funeral of a church member a few weeks ago and it did last fall at my father-in-law’s committal.

My lovely wife Carolyn was surprised by how much the military honor guard meant to her. Two young military men carefully and ceremonially folded an American flag at her father’s graveside and presented it to her with the words, “On behalf of the president of the United States and the chief of naval operations, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to this country and a grateful Navy.”

Pretty darn classy.

My own small contribution to some funerals has been to invite grandchildren to send off Grammy or Grampa by ringing the church bells. Tugging on a thick rope attached to heavy bells 40 feet overhead in the belfry sometimes lifts little ones right up off the ground. But when they hear the wonderful sound they have made – a chiming audible for miles in all directions, including up – they seem to know that they have said good-bye in style.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.