This I Believe Essay Always Go To The Funeral

I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that.

The first time he said it directly to me, I was 16 and trying to get out of going to calling hours for Miss Emerson, my old fifth grade math teacher. I did not want to go. My father was unequivocal. "Dee," he said, "you're going. Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family."

Deirdre Sullivan. Nubar Alexanian hide caption

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Nubar Alexanian

Deirdre Sullivan grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and traveled the world working odd jobs before attending law school at Northwestern University. She's now a freelance attorney living in Brooklyn. Sullivan says her father's greatest gift to her and her family was how he ushered them through the process of his death.

So my dad waited outside while I went in. It was worse than I thought it would be: I was the only kid there. When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson's shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, "Sorry about all this," and stalked away. But, for that deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered 20 years ago, Miss Emerson's mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes.

That was the first time I went un-chaperoned, but my parents had been taking us kids to funerals and calling hours as a matter of course for years. By the time I was 16, I had been to five or six funerals. I remember two things from the funeral circuit: bottomless dishes of free mints and my father saying on the ride home, "You can't come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral."

Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that.

"Always go to the funeral" means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don't feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don't really have to and I definitely don't want to. I'm talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex's uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil. It's hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

In going to funerals, I've come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life's inevitable, occasional calamity.

On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I've ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.

Funerals

“Love isn’t how you feel, it’s what you do.” Madeline L’Engle, Wind in the Door (1974).

As chaplain to the community and for the people of Wake Forest, Ed Christman was always present in times of grief and mourning. He was involved, in some way, with many of the funerals within the Wake Forest community — faculty, staff, and on rare occasions, students.

Ed would work with the family members to organize a service, gather musicians, write the program, and contribute scripture, prayer, and/or eulogy. Over the years, he has led or participated in funerals for many of his own colleagues and friends.

Ed Christman in 2001. Photo by Snyder Photography.

Ed said that in some ways, funerals are easier to lead than weddings. A funeral congregation has no need for perfection; they only hope for meaning and blessing amid the pangs of grief. Those at a funeral are forgiving of errors, be they mispronounced words or breaks in the flow of the program. It is already clear that life itself is imperfect and confusing; the service is allowed to be authentic.

Family members often wrote letters of deep gratitude to Ed for his kindness and and ability to guide them through grief, especially true on the rare occasions that a student passed away. The first step was a meaningful service for their loved one. After the service, Ed would be there to help family and friends with what to do next. This might be how to deal with the details that death brings or simply how to keep going after a loss.

He was also there to help students who lost a parent or other family member, often becoming the person who would shepherd the student through the news of loss.

Ed’s funeral prayers were among his best at capturing the essence of the moment. This is from a meditation at the memorial service for Russell Brantley in February 2005:

“We gather to grieve the death of Russell Brantley and yet to celebrate his life. We remember his wit and wisdom, his candor and care, his disdain of the false, and his embrace of the true. We celebrate his courage, his visions and dreams, his devotion to family and Wake Forest. Sustain in us his openness to learn and to acknowledge the frailty in us all, our foolishness along with our wisdom…”

Ed also delivered eulogies. Only a few sets of written notes for eulogies were saved for history, but these illustrate the craft and care of this crafted work. Ed delivered the eulogy for Jesse Dotson of Fairview, North Carolina, the father of Ed’s beloved son-in-law Stan Dotson, on September 10, 2000. His notes show six versions building to this final message:

“Jesse had large hands open to other hands, welcoming to life lived in the reality of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesse had a large heart open to hearts beating rhythms of joy for he knew who he was and where he was going–a sojourner in the wilderness bound for the Promised Land.

“As part of this journey, Jesse preached his own funeral, embracing sorrow and death, conflict and harmony, with laughter, joy, and steadfast assurance that to live in God’s grace is to share the Lord’s bounty. Jesse did not have a green thumb; he had green hands, working God-given soil and reaping a pantry full…

“And the gospel speaks of death in a life-giving way. Jesse’s final illness was a testimony. One of his nurses, seeing how he confronted pain and death’s reality declared her life has been changed forever. Indeed, Jesse preached his own funeral as long as God breathed life into him.

“In these last days, Kim and Stan played [music] in his room; ‘that’s mighty beautiful, mighty beautiful’ — the music of the heart can strengthen us one and all. Indeed, we can say with Jesse, whether speaking of his life or our own, it will be all right because we are knit together by what God has provided, whether in joy or sorrow, family, church and labor to help us build [that] not made with hands.

“Jesus has promised peace, a banquet table for the family of the Lord, a table where all hearts open …  where light on the lampstand for all to see, see the overflowing life, Jesse’s life continuing to bless us one and all, a place where there is no time, toil, or travail, all things new. Jesse welcomes what the Lord has prepared and with open hands and open heart will make his contribution to the glory of God. It will be all right. All of us are in the hands of God. Amen.”

Sometimes the whole campus had reason to grieve. At these times, Ed led campus-wide services for the community. For example, he directed an annual Service of Remembrance to honor the memory of for Wake Forest faculty, staff, alumni or students who had passed away in the previous year. This service was held on Homecoming Weekend each fall.

He also led the campus-wide service on the evening of September 11, 2001. One year later, he organized a Remembering and Hoping Service on September 11, 2002. Professors Ed Wilson and David Levy, Jill Crainshaw of the Divinity School, Associate Dean Sam Gladding, University Police Detective James Rae, and students Badriyyah Al-Islam and Candace Mathis were on the program. He organized a service to mark declaration of war on Iraq in March 2003.

Remembering and hoping, humbling and powerful: these phrases describe Ed’s way of creating a memorial for those who have passed away and honoring those who remain. Even here, there is hope. As Isaiah 62:2 reads, “… and you will be called by a new name.”

Ed’s constancy brings to mind a radio essay on the importance of such services called “Always Go to the Funeral” written by Deirdre Sullivan. It aired in the National Public Radio series This I Believe (2005).

“I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that. …  In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity. …

“On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.”

From one of Ed’s sermons: “The most significant events in your life and mine are not propositional. Who remembers the exact words at a frat initiation, or at a marriage, or what the new boss said about the job? Who recalls what the teacher said? Who recalls what the minister said at your bedside?

“Who recalls tragedy in words — but instead knows what it means, to circle the wagons in times of family grief.”

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