Funerals are a lot like weddings. They tend to be formulaic: the wake, service, procession, burial, and lunch afterward feeling like the ritualized succession of formalities that one sees in the aisle walk, taking of vows, limo ride, reception, and breakfast on the morning after. They can be a cause for the revival of dramas and dysfunctions among family and friends. They frequently involve a pastor quoting Scripture, and often take place in a church. They are filled with photos and stories about times that have come and gone.
And despite being formulaic, funerals, like weddings, present an opportunity for the individuality of the person (in this case, the departed) to be presented: maybe he wants no religious service, or cremation, or to have his ashes spread over a favorite landmark, or to be buried face first so the world can kiss his ass, or, in my father’s case, to have his son give a speech about how flawed a man he was, going so far as to recite an anecdote in which my father used the C word when insulting a group of kids who taunted him for having a white beard.
But all that aside, the most important similarity between weddings and funerals is that they are all about love.
No, this is not an advertisement for living the dream like Chazz Reinhold, the character played by Will Ferrell in the movie Wedding Crashers who began his career crashing weddings before graduating to the business of crashing funerals when he realized, in his own words, that ‘grief is nature’s most powerful aphrodisiac.’
Nor is this to naively claim that funerals are always filled with the kind of praise and adulation and hagiography one observes in a state funeral or ornate ceremony for a much-beloved cultural icon or head of state.
Rather, funerals are all about love because they are the kind of pensive occasion that, though they invoke the morbid sentiments associated with death, gets one to thinking a lot about life, either about the age-old questions about the meaning of life which have inspired stories like the Death of Ivan Ilyich, or about the particular reasons that the man who has lived and died either loved or was loved.
I recently attended a funeral for my fiancée Kara’s Uncle Jim. During the service, the pastor cited Scripture and talked about Uncle Jim’s love of Jesus, his devotion to family, and his love for West Virginia University sports teams. Then the second pastor spoke, at one point asking if anyone in the audience would like to share a story about Uncle Jim. I was on the edge of my seat with the urge to tell a story that Kara had told me that morning, but having not anticipated the opportunity, I could not get the words into my head fast enough. Rather than shoot from the hip, I remained seated.
I regretted it afterward because, after all, this was a man’s life at stake. Not literally, of course, but in the sense that here was the forum for us to remember the life of the man who lay embalmed in a casket, exposed to the strained curiosities of the living, no longer having a voice to speak for himself. It was a strange kind of nakedness, held up for public viewing, but offering no lens into the internal ruptures of the heart and mind that characterized his life when blood ran through his veins. I did not know Uncle Jim, so I did not know the particular passions, flaws, frustrations, vices, regrets, desires, longings, and perversities that made him human. But I did have, along with the tears of family and friends, a story Kara told me about how Uncle Jim embodied the habits of a man who loves forever.
Kara had told me that every summer when she was a kid Uncle Jim used to drive three hours from his home in northern Pennsylvania down to Kara’s home in West Virginia to pick her up and take her back to his home in Pennsylvania for a week or two to spend with him and her Aunt Delores. It was her summer vacation. She looked forward to it with the excitement of a child. The anticipation. The road trip. The stopping for ice cream along the way. The roadside scenery. The arrival in Pennsylvania which signaled the start of the week of fun with Uncle Jim and Aunt Delores. And then there was Uncle Jim. His kind, low-key avuncular way about him. The generosity of taking time out of his weekend, after working all week in a factory, to make the drive and make it fun for Kara.
Once arrived, Kara felt like, at least for a week, she had a new home and a new life in a new town with a new family. Aunt Delores would take her shopping for clothes. Uncle Jim would listen to her stories about boys and girlfriend dramas and home life back in West Virginia. There would be meals at favorite restaurants, ice cream, and time spent with her cousins who lived in the same town. For a week or two in Kara’s life, Uncle Jim and Aunt Delores were a new set of delightful parents. Kara did not have this kind of happy home life back in West Virginia. Other than enjoying a close relationship to her father, she was not blessed with a reliable and stable family. So it was a relief and joy for her to be able to look forward to a week or two in the summer spent with her happily married aunt and uncle.
Uncle Jim was married 52 years to Aunt Delores. 52 years! I have no doubt they had their frictions at times like the rest of us, and maybe inertia set in after a while, but 52 years is a lot of time to spend with one person, day after day, waking up in the same bed, eating dinner at the same table, living in the same house. 52 years is a lot of time for one person to love another. How did they do it?
What accounted for the longevity of their devotion to each other? What accounted for their consistency? What kept them going when they encountered hard times? How did they succeed in being the happily married couple with whom Kara looked forward to spending a week or two every summer?
As one who is now engaged to Kara after going through the growing pains that arise after the lovey-dovey hormones of courtship have had their party, and who has now settled in for the long haul, I have an interest in the answer. I cannot help but wonder about what the long haul has in store for me and Kara.
One big change is that we have a child on the way. We also have to plan a service and celebration of some kind to officially tie the knot. But then there is the life we will live together in the years to come. What kinds of summer vacations, road trips, family celebrations, medical emergencies, and parenting challenges await us? What kinds of ups and downs will our own relationship encounter through the years? How can we endure in lasting love until the day arrives in the very long run when each of us is laid to rest? How can I find the secret to lasting love in the 52 years of marriage that Uncle Jim and Aunt Delores enjoyed?
I did not know Uncle Jim, and only Uncle Jim can speak for Uncle Jim. But there is something in that story of summers long ago that seems to provide a glimpse of the answer. I picture Uncle Jim taking off for his three-hour road trip from Meadville, PA to Weston, West Virginia, to the state where his beloved college sports teams played. I picture him on a three-hour drive by himself, getting some time to himself to think or listen to music on the radio, and then picking up his niece. Maybe there were summers when deep down he didn’t really feel like making the drive. But he always did, and Kara always felt welcome, in good hands, and happy.
As an introvert, I can appreciate the need for time to oneself. I don’t know if Uncle Jim ever gave as much thought to this as I do, but what I did learn at the funeral was that Uncle Jim cared very much about family. At the funeral home where the service was held, one saw poster boards with hundreds of photos of Uncle Jim with family. What is family? It is not simply blood relations. It is the strongest network you can have of people who may get on your nerves but also of people you care about, and who care about you. At the center of Uncle Jim’s family was Kara’s Aunt Delores. The woman with whom he spent 52 years of his life. 52 years! Can there be any question that in all that time there were doubts about each other, frustrations with each other, and grievances about each other? I don’t think so. I’m sure also that they felt a bit of the ennui of inertia. But to wake up every day to the same person, there had to be love. There had to be compatibility. And there had to be a friendship. After learning to love each other, they had to learn to like each other too.
There are times when I think about how remarkable it is that Kara manages to put up with me, or me with her. We both have our personal flaws and idiosyncrasies. We both annoy the hell out of each other at times. We don’t always agree on everything. But we are still together, saying our sweet nothings to each other, going on trips together, planning our lives together, preparing for the baby, and ultimately, being able to understand each other in absolutely instinctive ways on fundamental matters of habits and values, which have their underpinning in our unique experiences and how we were raised. I tried to hide it, but when Kara told me the story about those summers with Uncle Jim, I became teary-eyed. The tears were for Uncle Jim but they were for Kara too, for how much it says about her that a simple week with her aunt and uncle in some rust belt town in Pennsylvania in the summer made her so excited. It said something about the humility of her upbringing.
It made her the person she is, a person who is frugal and economical and financially savvy, a woman determined to be the kind of caring mother she herself did not have, a small-town country girl who made her way to the big city and carved out a career for herself. She is a woman I admire, but also a woman I happen to like being around, a woman who intuitively empathizes with my own humble origins, who lets me work out every single day without thinking I’m obsessive (well, maybe she does, but she’s okay with it), who doesn’t think I’m a freak because I go through very detailed routines at night before bed because of my obsessive compulsive disorder, who buys me personal sessions with instructors at the Jiu Jitsu gym where I train as my gift for father’s day, who reads David Foster Wallace along with me, who shares my agnosticism, and who just can’t seem to stop loving me.
In other words, I like her a whole lot. She is the woman who was always ‘out there’ somewhere in the world as I was growing up, living in a parallel world and also growing up, when we didn’t know how our paths in life were leading to each other. She is the woman I abstracted about while driving home to Rhode Island from New York City on holidays, wondering if I would ever meet a woman willing to start a family with me. She is the woman with whom I am able to sit in the car for hours in silence and be completely at ease when we drive to her hometown in West Virginia. She is the Aunt Delores to my Uncle Jim. I love her a whole lot, but I also like her a whole lot. I like being around her, and even when I want to be alone, I like knowing I will be able to return to her.
I like her as much as I love her.
That seems like the kind of love that sustained Uncle Jim in his marriage, in his commitment to family, and in those six-hour roundtrip drives every summer from northern Pennsylvania to West Virginia and back again.
It also seems like the kind of love that can last forever.
Or at least 52 years.
Photo: Getty Images