Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Story and a Man's Funeral

I drove down to Winter Park, FL with my wife and mother to attend the funeral of a friend's father. The name is not important to you so I won't mention it. Giving a name to the person won't cause you to feel any greater sympathy for those who mourn him. It will only serve to give title to a stranger, much like understanding a story from its title.

So better served am I to tell you what he did. He was a reputable lawyer in Winter Park, FL with more ties to the community than kudzu on a South Carolina hill. He fathered two children and was married to a beautiful and proper southern woman for 57 years. His collegiate life saw him get a degree from both the University of Georgia and the University of Florida.

His business sense allowed him to make decisions which furthered his career and overall quality of life. He was well liked and well respected, a man whose word was enough. Apart from his family, his most prized efforts were related to his faith and the rewards reaped by the community churches from this love. That he proudly served his country in the USAF must be a close second as his funeral echoed voices calling each to our attention.

I did not attend the viewing because I do not like them. Call it a weakness or simply a preference, but that final memory is not what I desire. The dead look dead and no artist can change that. In my past I've seen a 19 year old who I used to baby sit and the father of a close friend, posed and decorated to give their best side: that of being alive. It is the ghost of the child’s potential lost and that father's cancer beaten body which keeps me away.

So we left on Monday morning, with all of nature giving her best to bring joy to the moment. It was a Baptist funeral so I suffered through the usual references to Christ and eternity. I respect the faith and I understand why it is done, but I would simply rather hear about the man who died.

There were brief notes of his wit and confidence, and those made me both laugh and smile. That his faith was so prominent may explain the crisp joy that washed through the room along with the rays of sunlight through well kept glass. It was refreshing.

The casket was draped in the American flag, which would eventually be given to the widow at the gravesite. The flag's colors stood out against the white washed walls and common colored pews. We would follow casket and flag roughly 200 yards, where they would then be separated.

It was once we left the church that it all became poetic. The church stood inside what one might consider a country club and therefore flanking the church was a golf course. In order to walk from the church to the cemetery you had to pass one of the holes: I believe it was number three.

Moving through the sun and shade we walked along the street and past the tee box of hole number three. Sitting in the golf cart was a man and a woman, I'd guess mid-twenties. He appeared to know the sport as he surveyed the straight shot, not minding the people and cars passing behind him. Though there were two sets of clubs I did not see her hit, nor did I see her even attempt to leave the cart. Maybe being with him on this day was enough.

Coming in view of the final act, we could see the pallbearers pulling the casket from the hearse with the remaining family standing around it, still not exhibiting any visual signs of suffering. There was the usual green tent which protected the family, preacher and casket from any of the elements. We stood a bit back, almost too far to hear any words spoken.

While two Air Force representatives folded the flag that topped the casket, a train could be heard in the distance, blowing its horn as if to announce the arrival of a new soul. Sun, clouds and wind seemed to alternate their presence as if to view the final act before this man's body was lowered to its fate.

The only break in the order was a required second attempt at getting the flag to its final shape. I could not see where the fault was but it did not matter. Participants waited, as if relishing even more time to be in the moment.

Once folded the flag was brought over to the bugler, so he could honor the memory with a stirring and tight rendition of Taps. Apart from the tree frogs who chattered amongst themselves, giving us brief moments of respite while they caught their breath, everything on earth seemed attentive to the now.

The landscape was immaculate and the decorations were perfect. No part of the score was off key and every actor fulfilled their role with expertise. I wondered what must the golfers and greens keepers think of us, or if they thought of us at all. Surely this was common to them and every sound or movement, from person or nature, was nothing more than an unnamed thing: Or just a thing with the name "funeral".

But isn't that the problem with a story? You can't appreciate it without hearing the words and experiencing how it constitutes the world. Just saying its title affords me nothing beyond associating the words with my experiences which may not bear any resemblance to the world between birth and death.

It is never just a thing: it is always a story.