Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Memorial Services for Elders

       Funerals have changed a lot since I was a youth and I'm not sure I like it. I won't say they're now inappropriately upbeat or cheery, but nearly all the ones I've recently attended had amusing anecdotes, smiles, chuckles, and jokes or impersonations to celebrate the spirit and soul of the deceased during the main service proper. Grandchildren—often cute and sometimes touching—described humorous or intimate events they will always remember about Grandma or Grandpa. What was missing were the copious tears, the solemn gravity, and the heavy feeling of loss. The permanence of death got almost trivialized with simple assurances that they are now somewhere better.
     When I was a preteen, my Grandpa's funeral in Honokaa lasted a week in which all sorts of hell played out for many of his immediate and extended family. Multiple hour-long services held before his Buddhist shrine in the parlor of his three-generation family house—incense and mosquito punk imparting a smoky, hazy air, blue tinged and noxious—obligated us to kneel on zabutons (small square cushions) in the formal seating position (painful, painful, painful!) while the priest intoned sonorous chants—mournful sutras that taxed his breath and that were accented with occasional rhythmic tappings of a thick wooden mallet against a deeply resonant brass bowl gong. Dongdongdongdongdongdongdongggggggggg... it went. Sincere tears flowed copious from Grandpa's six surviving daughters seated in the front row by age and a dozen granddaughters. This was followed by a message—entirely in Japanese during which everyone sat informally.
     But this anguish was nothing compared to that experienced during the open casket viewings at church—the first service at which the priest spoke in (broken) English a refreshing message I could finally understand.
     I'd been fine until Mom dashed out of the room at the second of these with body-racking convulsions, sobbing aloud as she left. I assumed she was dying and, panicked, looked for assurances from Dad, seated beside me, who seemed unaffected, with a concentrated strain on his face that was his sometimes norm. After service, Mom appeared fine and chipper and for some reason I wasn't surprised.
     Then, on the final night, after completion of the priest's short message in a dinghy adjoining sanctuary, white gloved poll bearers dressed in military-style garb entered from behind us, marched the length of the center aisle, closed the casket lid, and carried Grandpa toward the front entrance. We followed (me in tears) out to a whisper quiet, nighttime parking lot where the open back of a long, black hearse limousine waited, engine growling, dark gray exhaust spewing forth. In went grandpa, the gate slammed shut, and the hearse crept away down the steep hill toward the unseen crematorium.
     Mom's family has always been very close and it shouldn't have mattered, but that was the first time I cried openly in public, and in front of all my relatives. Embarrassed at being the only male to weep and trying to hide it with little success, I found comfort only later when no one teased me about it or even mentioned it.
     A couple of days later back home in Hilo, my sister told Mom, “I don't ever want to have to attend one of those again!”
     “Why not? I asked, having enjoyed getting together with all the extended family for the first time in my life, despite the sad circumstances.
     “Because it's just too sad!”
     “No, I don't expect that,” said Mom. “Grandpa was Nisei—from the older (second) generation. We'll do things differently from now on.”
     “Especially the open casket—he looked so natural, like he was napping.”
     “Yes, he did look handsome. We had to do it. I'm glad I got to see him one last time, but I wouldn't want that for myself. It is too sad.”
     Every other service I've been to since then—some only a few years later—have been short, one-time, hour long affairs at a generic mortuary, some with western-style music and all with upbeat, honoring messages. If Grandpa's had been a final farewell send-off of a beloved to an unknown, never-to-return-or-be-seen-again afterlife, all succeeding ones have been minimal ceremonial offerings and celebrations of the deceased's life—much simpler, straight-forward, and less complicated, with after-service receptions sometimes filled with loud talk, raucous laughter, and naughty play and antics by youngsters. I guess a lot of the deceased preferred it that way, perhaps thinking in planning their own funerals, “Why should you make long, sorrowful sobs over me? That just makes things unpleasant for everyone. How's that going to help me once I'm gone?” I could picture my recently deceased Aunt Sue saying something like that.
     A former pastor of mine once said if no one cries at your funeral, it probably means that you missed far too many opportunities to connect with loved ones, friends, and coworkers. It should be one of our life's goals to become so lovingly connected that at our wakes mourners will weep copious and lines of them will spill out the doors into the parking lot. That made me think, is that what funerals should be?
     But then, later, that same pastor shared that at a service he was presiding over with ample mourners, he said that since he (the deceased) is Christian, he is now in Heaven, surrounded by rejoicing angels. Therefore, it really was a cause for celebration for persons of faith.
     I guess he was separating the way we live from the type of funeral service we should have. In other words, tears of survivors aren't necessary to have a meaningful service (or to save the deceased's soul), but survivors' tears suggest a life that had been well lived.
     Nonetheless, I can't help but feel that something is missing from these abbreviated, upbeat services. Sure, everyone mourns in their own way and time, but getting to the point that everyone mourns together—there's something special about that. I'd never felt closer to my immediate and extended family than during that hellish week of Grandpa's memorial services. Lifelong memories and attachments were made, which I still cherish. Not so with any of the other services I've attended since.
     There are few truly important events in life. There's child birth. There's adoption. There's marriage. There's religious milestones. And then there's death. They should all be given their due and while we tend to do excellent jobs with most of the former, we seldom so with the last. It's too bad, because true opportunities for renewed or improved intimacy and bonding among extended family members are increasingly rare.  It's understandable, though, how families in the midst of funeral preparations would feel too aggrieved, busy, and frazzled to plan and pay for elaborate and expensive additional services and unwilling to shoulder additional emotional burdens brought on by prolonged grief and multiple public appearances and resistant to deal with spontaneous bonding during vulnerable moments brought on by deep distress.
     I haven't yet thought about what I'd like my own funeral service to be like, but I would hope it would be deep, meaningful, moving, memorable, and even helpful—after all, if I'm fortunate enough to have the time, health, and inclination to plan and prepare, it would be my last chance to connect with and impart something to my loved ones, even if it's just to say thank you, I love you, and goodbye in my own unique way.

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