LOS ANGELES—Having been raised in a family of strong Irish Catholics, funerals are nothing new to me. End of life rituals are strange, sad, important and sometimes funny events where we mourn the dearly departed and celebrate their memory at the same time.
Photo courtesy of hosparus.org
With a drink or two.
Paying tribute to these old souls always seems right and fitting. After all, most of them lasted a long time despite a fondness for booze, tobacco and pork products.
However, now funerals feel more profound. I’m no longer losing ancient relatives who would wink and cough at gatherings, in-between naps, from a chair in the background. I’m losing cousins and uncles who are only a generation removed from me. I know these people and play supporting roles in their stories. I have had lengthy conversations with them. They know me and my kids and my stories.
And now they’re gone.
We lost Uncle Bobby recently and so I returned to Scranton, Pa. for his memorial mass and celebration. This event wasn’t exactly traditional, but then again Uncle Bobby wasn’t a traditional kind of guy. He showed up at formal family events in Hawaiian shirts and tie-dyed frocks, always with a kazoo tucked into his bandanna.
Except it wasn’t really a kazoo.
He was the youngest of my mother’s siblings, coming of age in the late '60s. He did his own thing and did it well. There was no wake and no burial. Instead, he requested cremation and a party at the VFW. Bobby’s beloved wife had a memorial mass at her Episcopalian church, where over 350 people came to pay their last respects. More than a few were confused.
“He was a baptized Catholic, buried in a Protestant church?”
We had a lot of explaining to do and could hear Bobby’s laughter in our hearts and souls. He was only 60 when he suffered a major heart attack and died instantly. Twenty years older than me used to feel like a lifetime. Now I realize it’s only an eye blink.
Death is getting closer every day.
At the VFW, I looked around and found comfort in a crowded bar. Guys with names like Jack, Kelly and Fitzy gathered to tell stories about a man they lovingly referred to as DOBS (Durkin On A Bar Stool), a man who had neither the time nor the inclination for hard work. Uncle Bobby died in the same town where he was born. Between both events, he was content to drink a few pints with people he’d known his whole life and play pool.
Yet no one in attendance would say his life, a failure by today’s competitive standard, was anything but a success. Relatives, both close and estranged, joined together seeking laughter, solace and forgiveness. Hatchets were buried and new inside jokes created. Surrounded by stories, history and love, I learned once again that life isn’t what you do, it’s who you are. Were you loved and did you love in return? If so, you are to be celebrated and revered.
Just like Uncle Bobby.