Luckily, I don’t attend funerals very often. Before Grammie’s service last week, the last time I’d been to a funeral was in 2003, when I attended a string of services: my Memaw’s in May, a drum corps acquaintance’s in October, and Amy’s grandpa in December. Each remembrance is different — Memaw’s, for instance, was held in a small room in a funeral home in Parma, with only close family and friends, while the service for Steve (a well-known and popular drum corps / drumline instructor) was held in a large church that held hundreds.
Never before Grammie’s service, though, had I considered the very different healing properties of a viewing or wake versus an actual funeral service. I think that, as atheists, Aaron and I ended up getting much more out of the viewing than the funeral.
The whole family (minus a couple people who had obligations) went in to the viewing together, and paid our respects to Grammie. Poppa went up first, and kissed her. (I found out later that it’s a Russian Orthodox tradition to kiss the departed, but that doesn’t make the memory any less poignant.)
Next to the casket were two large posterboard displays of photos of Grammie. Aaron’s Uncle Pete and his family had put a lot of time and effort and love into finding and scanning and assembling pictures from various stages of Grammie’s life, and looking through those was a beautiful bittersweet experience.
After that, we all spent time socializing with one another: looking through Grammie and Poppa’s wedding album; talking about normal, everyday subjects, then feeling awkward and guilty when we realized we were enjoying the social time; and remembering amusing stories about Grammie. Other friends and family members came by and paid their respects and talked to us “kids” (aged 15 to 33 — we all kind of gravitated together of our own accord) and talked with each other and the rest of the family. It was all very healing.
The next day was the traditional Episcopalian funeral service. We dressed in our Sunday best (Aaron got out his Weddings & Funerals outfit) and met at Grammie’s place of worship. It was a beautiful church, and I really should have photographed it. (I’m a sucker for beautiful church buildings, especially since the church I attended as a youth was not ornamental — dark woods and white walls and beige carpeting… and ’80s-style wall-carpet.)
The music — organ, choral, and congregational — and Deanna’s beautiful remembrance of Grammie were the most meaningful parts of the service to me. As an atheist, the parts of a Christian funeral service that are meant to be comforting have quite the opposite effect. I honestly have very little recollection of what the rector said; I was having trouble concentrating and following his point, and was enjoying listening to five-year-old Caitlin behind me talk about how she went to sleep last time she was in church, so why can’t she now?
Whenever I did manage to grasp onto what was being said, it made me want to stand up and protest. Not that he was maligning Grammie in any way; far from it. Whenever he mentioned that our sister Betsy was in the arms of Christ, or that she lived on in the many rooms of Heaven, I just wanted to stand up and declare to anyone who would listen that THIS IS ALL THERE IS. There is nothing more; that’s what makes this brief time on Earth so fucking precious. Never before had I felt so impassioned about my beliefs, and it was disconcerting.
There is nothing I would love more than to imagine Grammie sitting by a heavenly coffee table with my Memaw, maybe my stepdad Tom and his mother, maybe Grammie’s mother, and my Grannie, and Aaron’s mom, all sitting on comfy white couches and wingback chairs, drinking whatever people drink in heaven, all talking about how much things have changed and enjoying watching us through a little break in the clouds. Believe me, I’d love to think I’ll see my loved ones again, or meet the ones I never got to meet. But I don’t. I can’t believe that.
To wrap up the narrative of the experience: the interment ceremony was nearly as long as the drive from the church to the cemetery, and the rector tended to repeat himself while reading through his paper-clipped book of burial rites. We all got to say a final goodbye by placing a flower on the casket as we left the shelter where the interment ceremony was held. I kissed my rose before putting it on the casket; that just felt right, somehow. (Aaron and I also walked out with Nate and his daughter Caitlin to see the open grave. I’d never seen one before, and I’d never seen an open vault.)
(As an aside, mad props go out to the Busch Funeral Home in Lakewood, OH. Rarely have I seen a more calm, understanding and respectful group of people as their staff.)
All in all, Aaron and I were both glad that we’d gone out the day before and attended the viewing. I, at least, felt like that was the more deeply satisfying experience. We got to connect with family, and show genuine emotion without feeling like we were on display, and not get ejected from our grief by beliefs that we don’t share.
Times like this really drive home the idea that this time we have together is so precious, and we should make a point to connect with all of our loved ones as much as we can. Whether you personally believe in an afterlife or not, this time on Earth is still precious and finite, and we should all make the most of it.