I cry at funerals. That may seem like an odd thing for a gruff, rough, seemingly unsentimental, occasionally profane old so-and-so to say. And yet it is true. And not just sometimes. I realize that – pretty consistently over the last few years – I cry at funerals. OK, maybe not cry in terms of weeping or sobbing but my eyes leak, tears rundown my cheeks, my handkerchief gets damp, and – being a guy – I try not to let others see that I am crying.
I didn’t used to cry. By the time I was thirty, I’d probably been to fewer than 10 or maybe 12 funerals. I don’t think I so much as misted-up at any of them and they were almost all for people I knew and loved and was (usually) related to. I don’t think I even choked up at the funeral of my Grandfather Dalton who was for me “bigger and badder than John Wayne and cooler than Steve Earl*” when I was sixteen. Maybe I didn’t really get what was happening.
Since I turned thirty, I have been to a lot more funerals and it seems like each passing year now contains significantly more funerals than did the year before. Hardly a month now passes with out one. While some of these funerals are for friends or family, some are for people who I didn’t know well. A friend’s brother or father or wife or, most devastatingly, son or daughter. Someone who belonged to one of the groups I belong to – the rodeo, the wine trade, the church, a riding group, my old college fraternity, etc. Even now, I’m not sure I always completely get what is going on at a funeral but I know enough to know it is important and I know and see and hear and feel enough to cry.
I’ll admit now that I sometimes do something that may seem odd at funerals. When I know one of the bereaved well enough, I will bring a bottle of good Champagne either to the funeral or maybe to a visitation and give it to them so that, when the time is right, they can open the bottle and drink to the memory of the departed. Sometimes the bottle gets drunk the next morning on the way to the funeral and sometimes a few weeks later but it seems that it is never kept for more than a couple of months.
Anyway, I don’t cry because the person is dead or even because, in whatever way, I loved them. I cry because one of two things about the funeral gets to me.
In the best scenario (if there can be a “best” scenario at a funeral), I cry because something that was said by the priest or preacher or a eulogist touches me. There is story told that for that moments brings the departed back to life in my mind – and my eyes leak in either grief or joy or both. Or maybe I see from the service and the remembrances the grief that is racking that person / those persons that most loved the deceased. I cry because of the obvious presence of love and that cry, although sadder is also a cry of both grief and joy because without the joy of the life lived, there would be no real grief in the death and departing. It has been my experience that these sorts of funerals are held in churches rather than at funeral homes.
The other scenario is much sadder. I sometimes tear up at a bad funeral where it is clear that, no matter how loved by the grieving the deceased may have been, the preacher (rarely a priest) didn’t really know anything about the deceased. By the time my Grandmother Dalton (who had been married to, loved, and put up with my Grandfather Dalton) died, I was old enough and maybe experienced enough to realize that the “rent-a-preacher” (as my dad referred to him) didn’t have a clue. He hadn’t known my Granny. He knew nothing of her grace and kindness, generosity, talents, and perseverance. He knew nothing of a woman who was literally blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other but still lived her life fully and joyfully. I was sad that my Granny had passed but I was also saddened and even angered that her life was so inadequately remembered and celebrated. My tears that day were from sadness but also anger and, for that day at least, lacked the element of joy. And so the preacher’s words of comfort, however good they may have been, fell on deafened ears.
I know that it wasn’t the preacher’s fault. He was given a bad situation in which he tried to offer comfort. His words rang hollow on that occasion where they might have brought great comfort on another where he knew the family and the departed. If he had known that “Dorris Mae Turney Dalton” was “Maizie” and not “Dorris”. Maybe it was her fault because she didn’t go to church enough for a preacher to know her. Or maybe we didn’t know which church she had gone to. Or maybe we didn’t give the preacher enough information. It has been my experience that most of these sorts of funerals are held in funeral homes rather than in churches.
There are a lot of reasons to go to church and many, maybe most, of them are much better than this. Nevertheless, while it is most important that we are known by God, being known by a preacher has its benefits as well. And I wonder, how many people who are not known by a preacher really are “known by God”?
– Charles M. Bear Dalton
*A line from “The Everclear Song” by Roger Creager (knowing which may be sufficient proof that I am at least occasionally profane)