So when your eulogy is being read / With your life’s actions to rehash / Would you be proud of the things they say / About how you spent your dash? - Linda Ellis © 1996
If you have not read about the story of “The Dash” it’s worth your time. It is a poem written by Linda Ellis (lindaellis.net) about attending the funeral of a friend. The “dash” relates to your life. On most tombstones are the date you were born and the date you died. It is separated by a dash. The dash is the real part of your life. It relates to how you live it and how you will be remembered. The last line of the poem sums it up.
In the last few months I have attended three funerals that have stuck out in my mind. The first was for my lifelong mentor, Elwood Inscoe, where I had to deliver part of the eulogy in Rocky Mount NC; the second a simple memorial service for a distant cousin in Harrisburg, Pennyslvania with a church full of people — but only three cousins that I knew. And last, a full blown southern funeral in North Carolina. Each of these funerals impacted me in different ways.
Giving the eulogy for my lifelong friend and mentor was the most difficult. Jerry Seinfeld once said, “Remember the next time you are at a funeral, that most people would rather be in the coffin rather than delivering the eulogy,” and he is right! It was very challenging to put a lifetime of events, memories and feelings into a few brief words.
Most recently I traveled back to North Carolina to attend the funeral of a family member of a friend. He had been hospitalized a few times with some cancer-related issues but seemed to be doing much bettter. Sadly, he succumbed to a heart attack on the day he was checking out of the hospital to go home. “Uncle Bill” was a great person and very much loved by his family, friends and his community. He lived in the central or piedmont part of the state where he had retired several years ago and was always busy helping his church, his neighbors or his large family with projects, cooking BBQ, working in his shop or busy telling stories and tales. I had only met him a few months prior but instantly knew he was a special guy to most everyone who knew him.
Attending his funeral was rewarding and interesting at the same time. Having grown up in the south and having experienced many southern funerals, it was worth the trip to observe the pageantry, process and production that goes into celebrating the life of such a warm and colorful person. The funeral was in the fall and the leaves were bursting with color which made the setting even more special.
To fully understand the entire event, I will try to walk you through things and provide you some insight and thoughts.
The first night of any good southern funeral is the visitation of the family. In the past it was know as the “wake.” I often wondered if that name was chosen in case the departed decided to wake up and sit up in the coffin! I guess not! In the last 20 years that effort has now moved to the modern funeral home. Every community has one. They are very formal buildings with nice rooms and lots of boxes of Kleenex around.
We enter the building early and were amazed at the long lines of people there to give their last respects. This was a clear reflection of the many people who loved “Uncle Bill.” The visitation lasted until long past the 10 p.m. scheduled ending. This portion of a funeral is difficult for everyone. The family shakes hands and hugs people who they sometimes barely know who all say something nice about the dearly departed and then shuffle down the receiving line to shake hands with family members, relatives and other people who they often have no clue who they are! It is all part of the respect for the person.
The two hour wait, the constant words of comfort that are well intentioned, the refreshing of old acquaintances makes for a long evening for the family, especially the grieving widow in this case. I have stood in those receiving lines with the death of both my father and mother. The statements are always the same such as “I am so sorry for your loss,” “We sure will miss your Dad,” “He was such a special fellow,” or “Do you remember the time we did so and so with him?” As a family you appreciate hearing these things but you also know the people are just as uncomfortable and are trying to choose the right words.
The next step in the process is the funeral procession to the church and the funeral service. You would think this would be a time of quiet reflection on the life of the family member. Well, there is some of that! But more importantly is the crazy time before the funeral. All of the family members arrive at the family home to visit and talk. There were three generations at this one with all the noise and running around that happens with young kids who thought it was another day of playing to those young adults who thought it might be a good time to wear those shiny new (and short!) dresses to the older folks who just stood by and shook their heads at all the commotion.
This was the time for everyone to put on their best “sunday-go-to-meeting” clothes. Some looked very uncomfortable in their suit and tie that obviously had not been worn in a while; others seemed to think it was good time to show off their best features. No one had bad intentions, but watching the different generations of the family interact was fascinating to say the least. Some wanted to be in charge while others thought they should be in charge. The end results were that everyone got dressed up and got in the funeral limo on time to head to the church.
And then the story takes another turn. Funerals and driving always makes for some good stories. In this case the local police guided the funeral procession through the small town. The procession ran red lights and proceeded at a safe pace from the town to the countryside where the church was located. As I followed along in the procession I watched with humor as some cars pulled off the road as a sign of respect to a person they did not know and many others did not. I noticed that the younger the driver, the less likey they were to pull off. I watched a couple of near miss accidents as cars seemed uncertain what to do in the intersections. It became more interesting to watch in the rural part of the trip as people in the yard stopped and bowed their heads. To my knowledge the pulling over and showing respect is mostly reserved for southern folk. Having been to funerals in other parts of the country, I rarely see this special type of respect. It made me feel proud and thankful for people who took the time and effort to show this respect to someone they probably did not know.
After the arrival at the church, we next enter as a group. The church is full of people and friends. As a family we walk by everyone to reserved seating near the front. It is again a strange feeling to know everyone’s eyes are on you. You wonder if you buttoned your shirt, put your tie on right or wore matching shoes this time! The sermon and songs begin and you often learn a few new and funny stories about your great family member. At the same time you wish you had taken more time or called him more and just sat down and talked more often. The funeral ends and the next step is driving to the the graveside for the final burial.
As you can imagine, the driving trip continues with lots of imagination and strange moves. The funeral home folks know how to handle it but they must remind everyone to turn on their headlights, follow the cars to the graveyard and park as needed. Well this sounds easy. That is until someone is not going to the graveside service gets caught in the procession; someone barrels through the procession and does not recognize it; someone gets lost or falls behind to a slow moving train!
We arrive at the graveside and the entertainment continues. With Uncle Bill being in his 80’s he had many friends and family who walk with the aid or canes and some in wheel chairs, some shuffling of people ensues. The younger generations are quickly on their cell phones. I guess they need to update their Facebook status to somebody, but who knows!
The graveside is very respectful and appropriate. The pastor says a few words of reassurance and shakes all the family members’ hands. The services end and the real visiting starts! People you have not seen in 30 years come up and remind you who they are and you trying to tell your life story in five minutes or less. You see people you have not seen in years and try to remember all the good times you had with them. You walk away with warm memories and good feelings.
The final stage now is set. Again this is a standard for all southern funerals. The family and many close friends return to the home place and share a meal. This is no ordinary meal. All of the food is homemade or store bought. It is brought in by friends and neighbors who want to pay a final act of kindness or respect. There is fried chicken, barbecue, vegetables, casseroles upon casseroles of who knows what, pitchers of iced tea, bottles of colas and other drinks. Everyone is welcome regardless of their tie to the family. Typically at some point it gets down to just family and then the great storytelling begins.
Stories about the recently departed where everyone tries to outdo the other one! Stories of mistakes, embarrassment are always told with respect and humor. At the end of the day, we all depart swearing to stay in touch better and knowing we probably will not.
As you can imagine, the funeral brought back many memories of growing up and attending funerals for me. It made me realize that some traditions are good and should be kept while others may need a little modernizing! In reflection I think there are some good life lessons. They are:
- Value the important people in your life each and every day. Tell them you love them and mean it. More importantly, show them you love them in ways they appreciate and you will both remember.
- Families can be quite entertaining and most of the time they are not even aware of the fun they bring to such an event. The range of personalities and their actions will make for an interesting day.
- Funerals are part of life. All bring sadness but out of them your can find many positive stories of the difference your loved one made in many lives and how they touched people in ways you never knew.