I went to a lot of funerals when I was young.
When I was 14, Mimi died. She had been sick and we knew that her death was inevitable, but it’s hard at any age to bury a grandparent. Then, my senior year of high school, my cousin T passed away. She was only a few days old. Her twin sister M is now a beautiful, smart, kind high school sophomore. She’s a busy girl whose future is so full of all those inevitable good things that come after a child works hard and has overcome heartache that the rest of us can’t even wrap our heads around. But I miss what could have been. I have to remember that M will always be a twin and that she carries her sister even though she may not talk about her or even remember her.
Then The Year happened. The year when my grandmother, my grandfather, and my dad all died within 14 months. I was 20.
I cried a lot, but the thing that twists the knife more than anything else was that at 20, I was this person who knew how to attend a funeral.
Depending on my relationship with the deceased, I knew how to behave and what cadence to adopt. When Mimi died, I knew to lock into my brain what it sounded like when my dad cried. I knew not to be scared by that sound but to sit next to him in the pew and hold his hand because he needed it. He was grieving his mother. When my grandfather died, I knew to stand by my mom at the small-town funeral home and look nice and smile when people who I hadn’t seen since I was a baby talked to me like I was an active part of their life. I knew that even though I wanted to stay at the reception after the burial, it was my job to drive my cousin who I had never really liked back to Memphis so she could catch her flight back to wherever she lived. And in the days leading up to my grandmother’s passing, I knew to listen closely as she read poetry. I was an English major and I had never even known that she knew who Robert Browning was, much less had a place in her heart for him.
At her funeral, these words kept echoing in my mind:
My mom is an orphan now. My mom is an orphan now.
A month after my grandmother died, Dad died.
Then my mom was a widow and an orphan.
And my ability to be the Be All End All Funeral Girl was put to the test.
This time, I was in The Immediate Family, the Inner Sanctum. I knew to accept prayers, cold cuts, blank books – whatever I was given as a sign of sympathy. I knew to be graceful. My cousin who I had driven to the airport months before didn’t know how to be graceful. She melted into a puddle at my own dad’s wake and wouldn’t even accept my brother’s hugs when he – the 13-year-old child of the departed who was by his side the moment he died – tried to console her. I didn’t know exactly what Funeral Grace entailed, but I knew that my brother and I had it. When people came out in droves to my dad’s wake and his funeral and his reception, I knew to thank them both with my words and with my spirit. Having been to a lot of funerals at that time, I knew that they didn’t have to come.
But they did.
And they came because they they loved him and they loved us.
Here is a thing you start to hear often when you go to a lot of funerals:
We should do this more often, under better circumstances. We should see each other more.
So there are a lot of really, really awful platitudes that people tend to spout when someone dies. Here are a few of them, and this article was written for a secular publication and doesn’t even scratch the surface of some of the awful God-wouldn’t-give-you-more-than-you-can-handle religious sentiments that do more harm than good to a person who’s suffering loss. Y’know what? Sometimes God does give us more than we can handle.
But the thing about seeing each other more? That’s a good thing to say, as long as you actually mean it. Death brings us together in support of those who are experiencing loss and also in remembrance of someone who impacted our lives. That’s why I am one of those people who wants their funeral to be happy and fun. You don’t have to wear black when I die, unless you want to. I want you to talk to someone you don’t know at my funeral, though. Tell them something goofy I did. Tell them something goofy you did. Just talk to them. Celebrate the good things. Exchange numbers. Make the world smaller by making a connection.
Just talk. Talk until you find a place of happiness and remembrance.
A week ago, David Bowie died.
My husband, C, and I had been on a kindergarten tour that morning for the school that she’ll attend in the fall when she’s four. When we got in the car to leave – the smell of school still lingering in our clothes – I checked Facebook and heard the news.
David Bowie died.
I went to work and was off-kilter for the rest of the day. At first I chalked it up to the fact that my kid is now old enough to tour kindergartens, but then I turned on the David Bowie channel on Pandora and couldn’t make it through “Golden Years” without tearing up. It’s always been mine, the lyrics meaning something different but equally-powerful to me throughout the chapters of my life.
I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years
Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years
Tributes trickled in the rest of the day on Facebook and Twitter. The memes. The quotes. Testimonies to this man whose songs we can all sing verbatim but whose words were written to us as individuals and captured wholly personal moments in our lives. Posts like Karen’s and Denise‘s and Samara‘s made me realize that David Bowie’s passing was one that I wanted – needed – to mourn in my own way.
Full disclosure: I have never been a die-hard fan. I have his greatest hits album and nothing else and I’ve only seen Labyrinth once. But in his death, I realized that David Bowie and his music meant more than I could have guessed simply because of the conversations I have had in the past week. I have the luxury at work to be surrounded by amazing, creative people who I also call friends. During the week of his death, we talked about what Bowie meant to us and how his music provided a soundtrack to our lives. In my office, we talk about a lot of things, but until he died, we never knew that David Bowie all brought us such joy.
It was almost like we all showed up at his funeral, not expecting to see each other there.
We should do this more often, I thought.
B and I will celebrate our 10 year anniversary this summer. We talked about Bowie this week the same way we talked about “Golden Years” on our second date in 2003.
I finally turned on Pandora. The Bowie channel plays a lot of Beatles and Rolling Stones. I had missed them too. I’ve been listening to too much M83 and Cut Copy lately. I need to get back to the music I listened to on the radio when I was a kid.
I need to do that more often.
My birthday was a couple days ago. I told C I wanted to have a dance party, and we went into her room and I turned on “Let’s Dance” and then “Golden Years.” She shimmied and shook in her own little almost-four-year-old way, and I felt like this was probably the best possible way I could ever remember Ziggy Stardust.
We need to do this more often.
I thought I knew how to funeral when I was 20. I am now 34 and I realize that the best way we can honor the dead is by celebrating with the living.
I just love this Emily. I’ve experienced how death can bring people together but it’s so much harder to maintain once the shock is over. But we should try to keep the connection, even if it’s hard. I love how you danced with your daughter! Now that I can actually listen to David Bowie again without crying and remembering, I need to do that with my kiddos. Thank you for the mention too. <3 xxoo
This post brought so many other things bubbling to the surface as well: me at a Bowie concert (the Let’s Dance tour) because my boyfriend was given tickets. I went with my BFF ’cause the boyfriend had to work. The boyfriend is long gone, the BFF isn’t, nor are the memories of David in his sexy white shirt and sleek black pants. My daughter, six years old, at her grandmother’s funeral telling my mom’s best friend that she’d walk her up to the casket, saying, “You can talk to her if you want, but she won’t answer you ’cause she’s dead.” Five years later, shopping with my daughter for black dresses: one for Grandpa’s wake and another for Grandpa’s funeral. Then, a few months later saying, “Mom! We need to go dress shopping. All I have are funeral dresses.”
Love you. Hope we talk more about this. Miss Dad every day and still amazed so much happened so quickly.
This post touched me. I too had a wallop of year, or rather two, where 3 grandparents and my dad passed. I feel like there is an inner toughness earned when you go through something like that. Not that it makes it any easier. Things you wrote were uncannily familiar to thoughts and feelings I have had. And then there was Bowie. I can’t claim to be an ardent fan, but 15 years ago my Irish husband (with admittedly much eclectic and better musical tastes than I) introduced me to his earlier stuff and I was blown away. Life on Mars … gives me chills. Every single time. I felt incredibly sad over his passing. I think my husband thought it was odd given I couldn’t name all his songs and albums as he could. Still…I mourned him. It felt like such a loss of an iconic time and a musical genius. Glad to hear others felt the same way …
Can I get a big ole Amen?
Bowie’s death hit me like a punch to the gut. I think it had more to do with his ability to be exactly whatever and whoever he wanted, and not give a care about what anyone else thought, even more than it had to do with the music. I was a quirky teenager, and I’m a quirky 40 something now, and losing him means another piece of my childhood falls away.
Excellent piece. Thanks for sharing!
Emily – this post was so touching.
Death – I can’t quite adjust myself to it at all at times.
Beautifully done. The final paragraph captures it all and is absolutely true.
Church Health Center of Memphis
UM, THIS IS AMAZING. I am proud and honored to call you my Besfrinn.
Well done, my friend. We’ll done.
This is beautiful.
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What’s really great is when people actually do this. I have grown much closer to my brother’s since my sister’s passing. Sorry that she had to leave for us to do that, but at least we are teachable. :) Really beautiful piece, Emily.
Thank you! Death can really put a wedge between the bereaved – unfortunately that’s something I’ve experienced too – but it can bring us together too.
Chills as I read this post. So many thoughts as I finished reading, but not enough words to say them. Thank you for your words. Thank you.
Emily, thanks for your honesty. I haven’t actually attended a lot of funerals, but my Grandma is coming to the end of her life and I know it is coming soon. Timely read.
Hello there – I just discovered your blog today, as I’m trying to use blogging as a way of sorting out living a new kind of life, so I’m puttzing about and exploring. I just lost my grandpa and my mom in the past 6 months, and whoa. This post. I can’t figure out if I want to say thanks, or just ask you for a hug. -M.E.
ALL the hugs from me to you. Life can be so brutal. Xoxoxo
I saw my grandmother’s die. I saw my parents cry. I held them, made tea for them so that they will feel better. Then days passed and slowly they told me about my grandmother’s, their moms. I never knew any of it.
I loved this post as I have lived it. Thank you.