I have attended many funerals in my nearly four decades of existence – relatives, friends, acquaintances. I’ve noticed a disturbing commonality among most of them. The finality of dying seems to baptize the dead in such a way that they are romanticized in the memory of the living. There are certain circumstances surrounding the death of an individual that enamor those not yet dead and have an especially cleansing effect on the deceased’s reputation. Death in combat for instance. Sacrifice of one’s life of another – especially if that “other” is a stranger. (This is particularly sobering.) Losing the struggle to a horrible disease that ravages the body or mind. (There is no shortage of support groups or pink ribbons to emphasize this point.) No matter who the victims of these circumstances were in their earthly life, they are forever immortalized as heroes, saints, and champions. Having been well acquainted with many of the people whose funerals I have attended, I have to say what is offered up in their praise during the eulogies is not always accurate. Nor do I think it does much good for the living to exaggerate the endearing qualities of the deceased, as if they were adding sugar to a bitter coffee to make it palatable. I understand that funerals are for the living. But a part of the purpose they serve is to provide a sense of closure (even though I despise the profligate use of that word in today’s society). It is unhealthy for a person to be forced to bury resentment and made to feel guilty for expressing anything other than a deep sense of grief that their dear so and so, in all their grandeur, was taken too soon. That were more years provided to the dead, they would have proved a joyous tribute to their now luminous memory. But this is the adulatory character of our obsequies. Like the flames of a pyre, the words of the eulogy radiate in our memory and serve to over shadow the darkness in a life remembered. A darkness that is weighed in panegyric balances, and found wanting of the praise we offer at its departure. Maybe that is the point. Maybe we repeat these romanticized tales of the dead as a kind of benediction for their souls. As if remembering the good at the expense of the bad were synonymous with praying for the devil in all of us.
All I know is that, at my funeral I want the truth to be told. Not that I want to be roasted per say, but I want the praise and sentimentalism to be real – to be true. I want to live a life worthy of my eulogy. I want people in attendance to be there because they genuinely regret my absence. That I affected their lives in a positive way. I don’t want people to come to my funeral out of obligation because they were relatives. I want people to come as an oblation because they related.
Why the sudden preoccupation with death? Well, I spent more than my fair share of time in a combat zone. I saw friends die. I went to their memorials. Sometimes I even cried, but usually not until I was in the shitter, alone except for the stench. It was fitting really. The smell of human excrement and sweat in a plastic box under a blazing Middle Eastern sun, mingled with chemical air fresheners not quite doing their job is a good metaphor for how it feels to stand at a friend’s memorial service wondering why they weren’t standing at yours. Why you’re still here and they are not.
In war, I think it’s difficult for a person not to wonder if they are next. I admit I was scared at times. Like Damocles, you wait for that sword to fall. Sometimes you just wish the damn thing would drop and end your misery because waiting to die seems worse than actually doing so. You know you’ve been in a war zone too long when… Well I could give you examples but if you’ve been there, you know. And if not, I couldn’t explain it. Eventually I came to accept the quite logical conclusion that I was going to become bomb fodder or get shot in the turret. (That’s not a euphemism for some unmentionable body part. It’s the rather exposed position of a gunner on top of a HMMWV, which is where I spent the majority of my time outside the wire.) It was the only real way I could overcome the anxiety of waiting for it to happen. I actually found some solace in the thought that at least I would be remembered as a hero. Because that’s what death in combat provides the victim in exchange for their lives. A metaphorical funeral pyre to drive away the darkness. None of the corrupt or immoral things I had done or said or thought would be remembered because I had died a warrior’s death. Now whether that meant I was shot down in a hail of gunfire or succumbed to a bad batch of ham steak MREs wasn’t the point. I would be a hero. My life would mean something.
I didn’t die in combat however, and to be honest, this was somewhat of a disappointment to me. I was ready for it. I had prepared myself and was content with the delusion that I was not coming back in one piece. It would be glorious! This however, is the psychological equivalent to putting a tourniquet above the knee to address a sprained ankle. The longer you wait before the error is corrected, the more damage is done.
Like so many others, I did go home – without a single physical sign of trauma. But I had worn the tourniquet for nearly five years and the injury was festering. And now I was going to have to earn my memorial as a regular guy. That’s a hard pill to swallow when, for years you’ve anticipated the honor afforded a soldier’s death. To be remembered as a warrior with all the accompanying talents and characteristics. Better people than me had died and I was given the chance to go on. And now that festering injury was a full blown, life threatening infection. It just didn’t seem fair. Somewhat applicable side note: Life is not fair.
I read articles all the time about how this pop star or that actor has died of a drug over dose but they were so talented, geniuses really and the world would be a smaller place without them. This has brought me to the realization that there is a tragically untouted talent necessary just to live everyday life. To pay your bills on time and make your spouse feel loved and appreciated. To raise well adjusted, happy children. To get up in morning and experience everything the day has to offer without being obsessed with seemingly endless expanse of time between this moment and your next day off. To put food on the table. It takes talent to sit down to dinner with your family and talk about your day. To be there, in that instant, mind, body and soul. Even talking to each other is becoming extremely rare these days.
But these are humble talents. Talents that don’t bring fame, honor and glory. And at the heart of it, they often require a person to change. To work on themselves. To embrace selflessness. This is where a regular guy or girl can be beatified. To be a parent, a spouse, a friend – these should be our identifying characteristics because in these roles, we learn virtue or we fail. We aren’t doctors or lawyers or soldiers. Those are things we do. We aren’t cancer survivors or recovering alcoholics. Those are obstacles we overcome. But the virtues make us who we are. They give our lives meaning. The part of life lived in the acquisition of virtue is the essence of a eulogy. I want that part of my life to be so overwhelmingly abundant that there are no stirrings at the back of a friend or relative’s mind fighting to overshadow it when they sit at my funeral and listen. I want my children to be able to say “he was a good dad”, and truly mean it. I want the affect I had on my wife to be so completely positive that mourning isn’t even necessary. I don’t want people to be happy I am gone. I want them to be pleased with how we affected each other, satisfied with an opportunity that was not lost on either of us.