I read a blog post recently by a woman whose personal philosophy on death is to “always go to the funeral.” It’s for the family, she said. I agree. Today I attended the funeral of a man my age, and as I watched the shell-shocked, grieving family scan the standing room only crowd, my heart was glad I went. They should know that their son/father/brother meant something to people. He mattered.
I contend that the funeral served another purpose, too, at least a small one, for the high school friends who gathered there.
We’ve reached our mid-40s, my classmates and I, so funerals are starting to arrive with the frequency and reliability of the city bus. I made it through my 30s without attending as many funerals as I’ve attended these last 12 months. I get that, though. Parents and grandparents can’t live forever. But three of the four losses this year were for friends who were NOT supposed to be the guest of honor yet. We all have to go sometime, but I think most of us have gotten accustomed to expecting that we wouldn’t have to leave the party until our dance card was full.
And Jeff Burgess’ dance card was most certainly not full. Not by half.
Attending the funeral for a “young” person is like getting lost in a strange city—nothing feels good or familiar. You walk in, see faces you don’t recognize, and you don’t know what to say. You offer one another the partial, hesitant smiles of strangers squeezing past each other in a crowded store. Worse, you’re like that awkward birthday guest who shows up hours before the party. The balloons aren’t even inflated. You know you’re there Way. Too. Early.
That was the feeling today as my classmates and I looked at each other. “What are we doing here?” It was a strange phenomenon: We were glad to see each other again but hated why we were seeing each other again. As a writer, I observe, so standing in the rear of the chapel, this is what I learned today.
I learned that no matter how many years have passed, your brain doesn’t allow you to see your friends age. They all looked as they did when we were in school.
I learned that while high school wasn’t everything, it was special. Yes, we grew up, went to college, got jobs, families, and bills, but the one strand of community holding us together is the shared memory of that school on Galaxy Avenue.
I learned that it didn’t matter who hadn’t seen Jeff since high school or who saw him every day; every person at the service represented a piece of his life.
I learned that people are good. They wear suits, ties, high heels, and skirts and attend funerals on beautifully sunny Saturday mornings… and do it with willing hearts.
I learned that while paying respects, we were also paying a service…to each other. With every smile, every hug, every nod… a silent message passed between classmates saying, “Let’s stop meeting like this,” and “Let’s get together sooner,” and “Time is fleeting, let’s not wait.”
A lucky consequence of being at Jeff’s funeral was that it enabled us to gather as a high school family and say, “He was one of us… we will remember him together.”
Jeff was not there. I’m not even sure if he’s allowed to peek in on his service. I’d like to think he’s too busy reuniting with his daughter and grandparents and too mesmerized by the jaw dropping indescribable-ness of heaven to attend his own funeral.
But if he did go, I can imagine what he must have said: Thank you for the great send-off, and thank you for thinking I mattered. This isn’t the end. I will see you again.