A Perfect Funeral

Dear CF,

Until today, I thought a good funeral was a contradiction in terms. I’ve been to sad funerals, anonymous funerals, bodiless services, wakes. And they were all good-hearted (and often godly) approximations at comfort, noble attempts to fold the ruptures death imposes into a bigger, more meaningful story. 

Today I went to a perfect funeral. It was the Platonic ideal of funerals. It held more beauty and humor and honesty than I thought an event could hold. I didn’t know religion, or people, or music, or communities could do this. Honestly? I’m shaken in my faith.

It helped that the deceased was queen of the dames. I caught her just as she was retiring. She offered to be on my dissertation committee if I worked on a specific text. I kept that text in just so I could hold her to her promise when the time came, which it didn’t. I wish you, by the way, that you could have seen her house and her long white hair.

She was the grande dame of my department—a brilliant scholar, an active committee member and a gently, nonsensically dedicated teacher. We were pretty sure we were her life. (She’d stay in her office for eight-hour stretches talking to undergraduates about their thoughts, their feelings, their love lives… whatever they wanted her to hear.) She loved the work and the people, and it seemed pretty clear, from her time commitments, that the department was her world.

Well, we weren’t. It turns out she helped shape a Jewish community 25 years ago and was the first of their “statesmen” to die. The rabbi said he had been a rabbi under her guidance for some years. When everyone laughed (there was a lot of laughter at this funeral), he said, surprised, that  it hadn’t occurred to him to use that as comedy.

I wish I could tell you everything everyone said, because it was long, but every single eulogy was, well, perfect. Her husband spoke last. He is in his late 80s. I expected a wreck, but he was small and good humored. He said he went to ask her what he should wear to a funeral before remembering. And that the cedar waxwings were back, and how much they liked looking at their shiny feathers, and that we should look them up, and that he went to tell her that as well before remembering. He said when she died, the rabbi, who was there, said that a great light had gone out. He felt this too, he said, but he felt something just a little different—the way he did the day the music died. “Things go on in the world just the same,” he said, “but the music is gone.” The woman who spoke just before him was a former student named Nora. He ended by saying, “anyway…. Nora didn’t mention that she used to babysit quite a bit for us too.” And stepped down.

That’s it, really: I’m wrung out from both the sadness and the rightness of it and startled out of my sighing tolerance towards religious practices (mine, and others’) to learn that living and dying and mourning can be done right.