In our death-denying culture many of us dread going to funerals, and attend only out of obligation. But through the years I’ve found myself mysteriously drawn to many where there was no family expectation of my presence. We had long since lost touch, and I would not be missed. I pay close attention to these impulses. Usually there is a reason for them.
When I came across Janet’s obituary in the newspaper, the pull was unmistakable. I had only met her a handful of times, mostly in those long-ago days when her daughter, whom I loved, lived next door. I knew little of Janet’s eighty-eight years, her marriage, her friendships, her agonies, her losses, her victories. But she had written my husband and me a condolence note in 1982 after the shattering stillbirth of our first baby. I still recall her small, neat penmanship and my renewed flow of tears. Ever afterwards, our casual greetings stirred in me a sense of comfort and warmth.
The Catholic parish hosting her funeral was a progressive one, but I was still wary. Nowhere are the mysteries of life and death lifted up more exquisitely than at Catholic funerals, yet the Church is always terrified of things getting out of hand. I have known several grieving families who were instructed to swallow their natural human longing for heartfelt eulogies or personal stories with directives like, “Save them for the luncheon.” They were supposed to be satisfied with the safe, generic words of the priest. Never mind how this left them feeling hurt and empty.
It was a welcome surprise, then, that at Janet’s funeral the priest chose to throw clerical control to the wind and to make space for the family to speak. What a difference it made! Suddenly here we all were, intimately accessing the outpouring of love and heightened spiritual energy of a large family that seemed to have lived life consciously and with heart.
I jumped, every nerve awakened, when the oldest daughter began her opening tribute. Her words rang out like a speech from King Lear. “My mother was tormented by scrupulosity all her life.”
“She’s going to plumb the depths,” I marveled. And she did, eloquently. She told her mother’s story. Not simply the stock narrative of an self-sacrificing woman, nor even the familiar saga of a strong, intelligent matriarch slipping into dementia. No, it was the nuanced, complicated, heart-breaking story of a soul struggling with her own personal demons.
I wept as she quoted a well-loved priest who had spent time with Janet while he himself was dying of cancer. He’d confided that all his sufferings paled in comparison with the hell of Janet’s entanglement in guilt, her inability to believe in her own worth. Was there anyone in that sanctuary who couldn’t resonate with the sorrow of this human predicament?
One of the sons, who had become a Baptist minister despite his mother’s worries for his soul, evoked in his homily the scene of the “Prodigal Daughter.” Janet could never take in people’s praise for her goodness. Her response was always a muttered, “Well…” Well, if you only knew how unworthy I really am…
I hungrily pictured her finally falling into the arms of the unconditional Lover she could not quite imagine. Was it possible this would happen to me too some day?
All of us, the family, the community, the long-gone priest, Janet in her new freedom and fullness of life, were immersed together in the ineffable. Even though the complete truth of Janet’s life could never really be known (because children cannot truly understand their parents), still, we were being ushered into new realms of awareness.
What soared in that church was the opposite of Janet’s dismissive “Well…” It was the raising up not only of the beauty of one particular life, but of the hidden wounds that haunt us all. In honoring their mother’s core struggle, this family poured the truth of our own lives over us like a glorious oblation.
Interestingly, though, I noticed a familiar voice inside me protesting, wanting to protect Janet from being so intimately exposed in death. I wondered:”Wouldn’t she die of shame…with all this revealing of her innermost secrets?”
“But wait,” I realized with an odd jolt. “She is already dead!”
How hard it is for human beings to remember that our shame does not survive the grave! We carry shame all our lives, though it is often poorly recognized and unacknowledged, a millstone that subtly dictates our every move, blocks us from knowing each other’s inner grandeur, and keeps us from expressing fully our likeness to the Divine. We assume our shame is virtuous, preventing us from making fools of ourselves. We are thus convinced that when we guard secrets in death, we honor the person to whom they belonged.
But at that funeral, this illusion fell away. With her great tragic flaw transformed, we saw Janet with the eyes of God.
And I grasped that when our shame is finally laid aside, in life or in death, we can see that it is merely a flimsy memento of our smaller self. What a pity it is that a wider perspective on each other’s lives so often has to await death, or perhaps, even worse, is guarded in secret forever. For when shame is removed, what inevitably remains is love. How can we not be in love, when we see each other face to face, in all our noble fragility?
At Janet’s funeral, I was able to take in the translucent beauty of our flawed humanity. This vision that I struggle to hold onto as a mother, a spouse, a friend, a writer, and a leader of authentic ritual, flooded the sanctuary that morning. I knew exactly why I had been drawn there.