I recently read a post entitled “Always Go To The Funeral.” A woman named Diedre Sullivan wrote it for the “This I Believe” series on NPR. She said it was a point on which her father was unyielding. Whether or not she wanted to, he told her to always go to the funeral. To do it for the family. It’s a beautiful piece of writing.
I’m not stealing Ms. Sullivan’s thoughts. I just think it bears repeating. And her post reminded me that I’ve always lived with this advice as well. Not that it was spoken. Not that my Dad told me the same thing her Dad did. There weren’t words. It was just understood all my life that when faced with the choice of going to a funeral or staying away, we went to the funeral.
Because in my corner of New Mexico, that’s what you do.
I come from a huge extended family. My parents are the both the youngest of 10, so as you can imagine, I have aunts and uncles and cousins to spare. In fact, I have over 60 first cousins. You can’t swing a cat in my neck of the woods without hitting someone I’m kin to. There’s always at least one funeral in my family each year. My first memory of attending one was my Great Grandma Vinyard’s service in Levelland, Texas. I was four.
In northeastern New Mexico, we take care of each other. There aren’t many of us out there to begin with. Quay County’s population is just over 9,000. Harding County, three miles north of my hometown, Logan, has a measly 695. It’s the least populous county in New Mexico. When the word goes out that someone we know has passed away, it’s a given. We’re showing up to say how sorry we are. Usually with a covered dish in hand.
There’s a ritual to funeral going. You dress with respect. You arrive early. You sit quietly while you wait for the family. It’s all about respect, respect, respect. It’s about taking an hour or two out of your life to honor someone else’s. It costs so little and it gives so much back.
I have about a thousand memories from funerals. You would think the overwhelming majority would be sad. That’s what death is all about, right? But surprisingly, when I look back, for every memory of someone bending over a casket in tears, there are a dozen others of hugs and smiles and pats on the back and kind words and funny stories. Of joy in celebrating the life of someone so cherished.
Don’t get me wrong. There will always be three or four funerals in my memory during which the sadness far outweighed anything joyous. Those high school gymnasiums filled with family and friends where we celebrated the lives of young boys and girls taken far too early – those are hard to remember with anything but sorrow. But they were still not to be missed. Because the one thing funerals are all about is memories, good and bad.
When my Aunt Crystell talks about Levi and Dwayne’s funeral nine years ago, she doesn’t dwell on what was said by the pastor or the songs that were sung. She says, “I just remember that sea of blue FFA jackets sitting the bleachers. People came from all over the state. The gym had never been that full.”
When D’Aun’s four boys remember her funeral, which was almost unbearable for everyone, I hope one of the things they recall is the gym being standing room only, people outside in the hallways, cowboy hats in their hands, heads bent in prayer. It was a difficult day, but hopefully it was made slightly better by the amazing number of people who showed up to honor their mother.
So we show up. We order flowers. We drop off a green chile enchilada casserole in the church kitchen. We hug old friends we haven’t seen in decades. We stand for the family as they file in. We sit through sermons and “How Great Thou Art” and family stories. We pack our purses with tissue. We stand outside in the heat or the cold and wait respectfully for the family after the service. We go to the cemetery and stand quietly while a minister or friend reads one final passage of scripture, and then we line up to pay our respects to the family.
And while we think we’re doing all these things for the family, we’re affected as well. We’re reminded of the value of a life well lived. We’re forced to think about how we’d like to be remembered. We get to share an enormous event with people we love and care about, and it’s always a privilege.
So, yes, take Diedre Sullivan’s father advice. Always go to the funeral.
New Mexico is a small state. We take care of one another. We do it because that’s who we are. Today I’ll drive to Logan for another funeral. My friend Leslie’s Mother passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer. I’ll go for Leslie, to let her know how much Sharon meant in my life. But I’ll also be going for me, for the part of me that knows it’s important it is to stop whatever I’m doing, regardless of how significant I might think it is, to honor a life.