A Funeral Story

My brother and I spent the better part of a day traveling to and from our Uncle Bob’s funeral on Monday. We began in the pre-dawn winter darkness of Wooster, Ohio, traveled to St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Livonia, Michigan and found our way back to Wooster as the pale sun fell into its pink then blue place below the snow.

Along the way, dressed in funeral attire, we talked about family (memories of Uncle Bob, of our own Dad who died in 2009, growing up and its accompanying angst and adventure), politics (the economy, the 2012 election, John “tan” Boehner, Barack Obama and the tragedy in Tucson), music (John Lennon, The Beatles, The Stones, The Animals, Gerry Rafferty to name a few) and movies (Monty Python and The Holy Grail, The Big Lebowski, High Fidelity and Elf). It was an eight-hour ride.

While The Beatles were playing, I asked my brother where he was when John Lennon was shot. My brother is a huge Beatles fan. In fact, the first album he ever gave me was The Magical Mystery Tour. His answer, “at college,” reminded me of our 12-year age difference, which nowadays seems a much smaller expanse of time. He told me that he came home just days after Lennon was killed, and the news coverage was exhaustive, much like it’s been since the Tucson tragedy. My brother said that Dad, tired of the constant coverage, said in frustration, “He’s just a man.”

John Lennon and his son Sean.

My brother said nothing back – but that moment was one of alienation and misunderstanding. My brother grieving his hero, a musical, social and political voice of his generation, unable to share any of it with Dad. And Dad, viewing Lennon as an aimless artist, hippie, troublemaker – who he didn’t even respect as a musician.

I sat with that for a moment when my brother finished. And I told him that I recently read an interview with Yoko Ono in which she spoke with pride about John being “the first man to push a baby carriage…no one did it before John.” I told Steve that whether or not that was true, it was amazing to think the effect one man could have had on a generation of fathers – a collective unconscious agreement to perhaps take a more hands-on role than their fathers had.

Interestingly, our own Dad was very hands-on with us when were babies. Not surprisingly, when we were old enough to voice our own opinions on the world, our relationships got more complicated.

I wonder if my Dad ever came around to John Lennon – understanding what a tragedy his death was, not just for his fans, but for his wife, his sons. And our culture. Did Dad respond that way because of his own fear of death? You’re walking through your life and suddenly, you’re gunned down in front of your home? Or one day, your mind simply stops working the way it once did. Was his quick anger simply his confirmation that we are all, always, vulnerable?

Now, at Uncle Bob’s funeral. A chance to honor the last of 11 children, a man full of life, a storyteller who often spoke of himself in the third person, a devoted husband, dad, grandpa, uncle, friend. A doer of good – in his church, in soup kitchens, with children less fortunate, with friends and family. A stubborn, funny, crystal blue-eyed character.

Aunt Georgia & Uncle Bob

The minister said it out loud: “We are perishable. What has happened here will happen to us all.”

I looked out the window to the churchyard, where Uncle Bob spent hours cleaning up, tending the lawn and flowers. It was snow-covered now: a large birdfeeder hanging from a leafless branch.

The minister continued, “The pain is over for Bob…and he will live on forever through God.”

I didn’t feel convinced.

But a covey of doves flew into the churchyard and began eating from the feeder. That was something.

A mutual friend of Uncle Bob and Aunt Georgia’s delivered the eulogy. It was laugh out loud funny at times; poignant in others, as all good tributes should be.

Afterward, we gathered with cousins and church folk for a luncheon. I joked with my brother, taking bets on whether or not ham would be served. (It is the Midwest, after all.)

There was ham. And chicken. Pasta. Potatoes.

And literally, a table of desserts.

Everyone wins with that kind of grief buffet.

When I hugged Aunt Georgia goodbye, I felt her physical strength through her heavy wool coat, though I knew her heart was aching. She had spent 62 years with Uncle Bob and today, for the first time in 62 years, she would go home alone.

What she has, what we all have, is memory, the way in which her life is different and richer because of the moments contained within it.

Josh, Becca & Grandpa/Uncle Bob

It’s not for me to say if Uncle Bob is somewhere laughing now with his 10 siblings, parents, even with my Dad.


I have an armload of memories. I have every present moment. I have a snowy car ride with my brother. And it is more than enough.

All the way back to Ohio

If I let my mind go, it will go all the way back to that field in Ohio where you lay, set off from the state road. A green-grassed space next to a farmer who realized the cemetery business is good, steady income, few hassles, a peaceful proposition.

I wonder what you think – being in a field of a place you teased about for as long as I have memory. “Apple knockers,” that’s what you called Ohioans. But Mom said you feared the hills of your native Pennsylvania, worried about disappearing down old coal mine shafts. And you avoided the topic of “final plans” altogether with a curt, “I’m not going.”

But you did go.

And even though I was there, I think we all missed the precise moment you slipped out the door, the smell of morning coffee and newsprint (which always made you sneeze) lingering.

…………………………………………………………….

We didn’t spend enough time at the grave; it all went too quickly. Mom did all she could bear and ran into the safety of playing hostess. As the limousine pulled away from the cemetery, I looked back in panic. I couldn’t believe we were leaving you there…where you never wanted to be.

But, part of me thinks you might enjoy all that quiet. The wind moving through the hemlocks and tops of distant trees and pastures. Maybe you enjoy the grey-bellied clouds that gather for summer storms, the wind showing the underside of leaves, thunder rolling into eternity, a staggered bolt of lightning meeting sky and flat earth.

I want to know you are safe and happy. I want to know if you see the still beauty of graves covered in November’s first snow.

I think of all the visits to cemeteries I endured as a child, looking at names and dates etched in stone, trying to imagine faces and lives of people I barely knew. It seems crazy you are there now, and I am here.

I listen for you. Watch for you. I want you to be the moon following me home. The stranger that smiles.

But mostly, I want you back.