No longer mourn for me when I am dead

My grandma died. Two weeks ago, on Tuesday.

That’s part, though certainly not all, of why I haven’t been posting lately. But it’s also what inspired me to write this, so it’s a trade-off, I suppose. See, over the last several years especially, I’ve grown pretty close to her. She was doing well the last time I spoke to her, and I was actually going to visit her later that week. So, it came as something of a shock when my dad called before my class Tuesday night (needless to say, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention in class).

I’m funny about death, and not ha-ha funny. Maybe it’s because I never really had to deal with it until recently. As a kid, my only real brushes with it were pets (one of our dogs when I was five or six, and my cat when I was somewhere between eight and eleven). In the last two years, though, my dad’s side of the family has been hit pretty hard. First two of my cousins, then my grandpa, and now Grandma (and in fact, a great-uncle since then). But it doesn’t hit me all that hard. Like, I get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach for a little bit, and with Grandma, I’d just wished I’d gotten to see her more recently before it happened, but I’ve not had the real despair, the crying, any of that standard sort of thing (with one exception that I can recall). For some reason, death just doesn’t affect me much.

So, while I miss Grandma, I wasn’t in a real fragile state at the funeral. Like Grandpa, she didn’t look quite right, lying in the casket. People say “oh, X looks so natural,” but she didn’t, not at all.

Anyway, the pastor (I think? Any Presbyterians here want to correct me on the termiology here?) brought the immediate family back to the private chapel area, and talked to us. She was new to the church, so she hadn’t really known Grandma at all. And between that, the public eulogy, and my grandpa’s funeral (also with a pastor who didn’t know him, though I don’t remember it being quite as bad), I’ve decided that no one who didn’t know me will be allowed to speak with any sort of prestige at my funeral.

I’ve also decided that my funeral will be kind of New Orleans-style, where it’s a big party rather than some morose sob-fest. I’ll even pick out the music. You can’t cry over “Baby Got Back.”

Anyway, part of the eulogy was made up of stories that the family had given the pastor to tell. That wouldn’t be so bad, except that she kept getting little things, like pronouns, wrong. It was like watching an outsider tell an in-joke, it simply doesn’t work. If we’re going to have funny little anecdotes, let the family tell them; I’m sure someone would have retained composure (like my fairly stoic dad). Part of the eulogy was boilerplate pap that could be used to describe anyone. Honestly, I was reminded of cold reading; when you tell a bunch of grieving family members that their loved one “lived life to the fullest” and “took the hand life dealt her” and “never gave up, never backed down,” you could be talking about absolutely anyone. The deceased could be a horrible bastard who everyone hated, but you say that they were “kind and caring” and “brought joy to everyone [they] knew,” and they’ll buy it.

But the really egregious part was the scripture. The pastor talked specifically and in a fairly detailed fashion about how she always tries to pick out special passages, to personalize the sermon, and how certain ones stuck out to her as she was preparing for this funeral. She read four passages; one from Romans, one from 1 Thessalonians, and then the two which she specifically talked about “sticking out to her,” the two which were specifically prefaced with the little story about personalizing the sermon, Psalm 23 and Ecclesiastes 3:1-9. Just to refresh your memory (because you know these verses, even if you don’t recognize the notation), here they are:

Psalm 23
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-9
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain has the worker from his toil?

Now, I don’t know about you, but this hit me like the pastor at a wedding saying “the couple has prepared their own vows,” and then hearing “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, honour, and cherish, ’til death do us part.” It’s like, why not throw John 3:16 in there? That’s the trifecta of “Bible verses that can be used at any Christian ceremony.” It’s boilerplate, it’s standard, and it’s anything but personalized. And to me, it was just a little disgusting; you go on about how you tailor each eulogy to the person you’re eulogizing, and then you don’t even look past the ‘standard toolkit’ of Bible verses? My grandma’s name was Ruth, there’s a whole book in the Bible with her name. You’d think they could find something a little more personal than the Bible verses that I can recite off the top of my head.

I was going to indict the translation that the pastor used (apparently the English Standard Version, if BibleGateway is to be believed), for the unnecessarily complicated phrasing of “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted,” but apparently it’s the same in the good ol’ KJV. I guess Pete Seeger‘s the one I should credit with the more succinct and poetic “a time to plant, a time to reap.” And I guess the Biblical authors needed access to a thesaurus. The way it’s phrased in the actual text sounds like “the Bible for people with meager vocabularies.” I mean, if reaping’s not your thing, what about “harvest”? Simplify, simplify, simplify!

I found it odd that a Christian sermon, about a Christian person, heading off to the Christian afterlife after a life of Christian faith and Christian service didn’t actually use anything that was said by Christ. Two passages from Paul, two passages from the Hebrew scriptures, and nothing from the man who is the reason for the church. This is nothing new. Conservative Christians tend to back up most of their detestable positions with statements made by Paul (who only met Jesus in a vision, rendering him about as reliable as Joseph Smith) or laws out of the Old Testament. I used to say that the Religious Right’s Bible skipped over everything between Deuteronomy and Revelation, but it really just skips over everything that’s not by Paul or Luke, and not Jewish. Before you guys go putting the “Christ” back in “Christmas,” try putting it back in “Christianity” first.
I can’t say that this sermon is really a sign of that; I don’t know the pastor’s politics, and it’s Baptists rather than Presbyterians who usually make the political waves, but it bugs me that even mainstream Christians will take more from the Old Testament and the letters of Paul than from the Gospels. Didn’t Jesus say anything about Heaven? About faithful servitude? About God’s love? I daresay he probably did; couldn’t something from that be used in a eulogy? It wouldn’t necessarily be more personally relevant, but at least it would recognize the genesis of the faith.

There’s not an overarching point to this post, I don’t think. I guess what it really comes down to is that the only thing which marked my grandma’s funeral as distinctly different from any other, were the family memories shared at the beginning. In religious terms, I guess she was just another Christian, just another soul, just another body, generic and homogenous to the point that her eulogy was basically a form letter, a template. The pastor started typing in Microsoft Word, and the paperclip popped up to say “it looks like you’re writing a eulogy. Want some help?” The only thing unique; hell, the only thing even distinct was what the family had given to the pastor. So why involve the pastor at all? If she’s going to make generic, basic, universal comments and use a couple of the Bible’s greatest hits, then why even involve her? If after 87 years in the church, my grandma wasn’t worth enough to them to actually do something original, to do something beyond the bare minimum requirement of effort, then what’s the point?

They say that everyone’s the same in God’s eyes. I didn’t think they meant it so literally.

6 Responses to No longer mourn for me when I am dead

  1. Dikkii says:

    My sympathies to you, Tom.I’ve lost three of my Grandparents and, like you, although I wasn’t crying sad after the death of the last one – my Granddad last year – there’s still that ‘gap’ that you notice occasionally.I have to say, though, that I don’t get open-casket funerals. They’re not very common, here, although I noticed when my Granddad died that funeral directors are now pushing “viewings” as a “value-add” prior to the funeral itself.Not really sure what to think about this. On one side – I think wanting to view a corpse is pretty grisly and gross, on the other hand, I think, why should wanting to view a corpse be considered grisly and gross?One thing that I’m not undecided about. Where it’s normal in Australian society to have closed-coffin funerals, I see this kind of value-add to be more than just a tad cynical commercialism.Christian clerics are the same as everyone else. They have their little pre-populated Word templates with all the optional verses in there, and probably will only stray outside those verses when specifically requested to.I blogged about what tunes I’d like played at my funeral, once. I’m curious to see a post about which tunes you’d like played at yours? Baby Got Back sounds sensational, how about picking a couple of others.

  2. Akusai says:

    Where it’s normal in Australian society to have closed-coffin funerals, I see this kind of value-add to be more than just a tad cynical commercialism.If you haven’t already, I suggest catching the episode of “Penn and Teller: Bullshit!” where they look at the funeral business. I’m pretty sure it’s in the first season. They convincingly make the case that most of what goes on after a loved one dies is cynical commercialism (and emotional manipulation) by the funeral directors.For my part, I’ve never thought of the music that would play, but I made a binding verbal agreement with a friend that if I should die before him, he is to arrange my funeral at the Childrens’ Playplace at a McDonalds, dress up like Grimace, and give a eulogy wherein he reminds the attendees that I was their savior and died for their sins. My body will then be sent down the spiral slide into the coffin. Once at the graveyard, the coffin will be sent down a larger spiral slide into the grave. I think it’s a fitting end.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I, too, am sorry for your loss. Though it seems you are focusing more on who your grandmother was while she was alive than who you have lost now that she is dead.A boilerplate eulogy is certainly appalling. When you say “she kept getting little things, like pronouns, wrong,” I hope you don’t mean she called your grandmother a “he.” I feel a little for the pastor – I’ve had to get up and praise someone on behalf of a group that knew him better than I did. You are right that a family member could probably have done a better job of personalizing the eulogy.It’s interesting that you say you think death doesn’t hit you all that hard, because you hadn’t had to deal with it. I always assumed that the reason death didn’t hit me hard was that I was dealing with it all my life. Living on a farm, losing my last grandmother when I was small, my father when in high school, and my mother when in college — I assumed that had made me cold and heartless. Maybe not; maybe it’s just the way some people deal with it.-CJV

  4. Bronze Dog says:

    My sympathies as well.But when you feel like you need a cheer-up, you can tell us about how your funeral will be off the hook, the chain, the charts, the grid, and most importantly, the wagon.

  5. Tyler says:

    Tom, my condolences as well.A close friend of mine comitted suicide earlier this month, so the topic of death and my own mortality has been on my mind frequently as well.For my part, I like the idea of a cellebration of life instead of a wailing period.I love what akusai said:For my part, I’ve never thought of the music that would play, but I made a binding verbal agreement with a friend that if I should die before him, he is to arrange my funeral at the Childrens’ Playplace at a McDonalds, dress up like Grimace, and give a eulogy wherein he reminds the attendees that I was their savior and died for their sins. My body will then be sent down the spiral slide into the coffin. Once at the graveyard, the coffin will be sent down a larger spiral slide into the grave.That has to be the funniest damn thing I’ve read all day.You could start a franchise with an idea like that. ;-P

  6. Filby says:

    Oh, man.I feel for you. A few years ago, I lost all three of my grandparents within a year of each other. I hadn’t had to deal with death up until that point, either. Like dikkii said, I still feel that “gap” — it still feels strange not to go over to their house on Thanksgiving.My own ethnicity is something I deliberately don’t make a big deal of, but one thing that makes me very glad to be Irish is the knowledge that everyone at my funeral will have a good time. And probably five or six shots of whiskey.Anyway. Take care, sir.

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