I was born into a relatively older family, so by the time I was a teenager I was used to going to wakes and funerals for my elderly Aunts and Uncles. I was quite young (7) when my Grandparents died, so in the moment, I did not “get it”. It was not until I was 18 that a death really struck me. My Uncle Jim, who I was very close with, died while playing golf only 2 days after he and I had played on the same course. It stunned me.
The ritual of burying the dead is as old as civilization itself. The various religions do it their own way. But all the wakes and funerals I had attended were all the same. Old-line funeral home wake followed by a Catholic Funeral Mass or other Christian Service.
I had never been to a non-Christian wake or funeral until about 5 years ago. A friend I worked with, Herb, who is Jewish, lost his mother, who had survived the Holocaust. I took some vacation time to go to the service which was in the middle of the day. (I had to take vacation time because my boss, who also knew my friend, did not like Herb. –Evil bastard boss) I did not know Herb’s mother, I was there for Herb. On an incredibly cold New England day, with wind chills below zero, my friend proved to others what I already knew, that he is one of the best people I know. He gave away his gloves, then his coat and finally his suit coat to people who had come to his mother’s gravesite less than prepared. A wonderful show of caring, from a wonderful man who had suffered a great loss. The talk afterward was about Herb’s generosity, not the weather, or the deceased.
This past October I attended the wake and funeral of a wonderful man who had married my cousin in 1961, Jack Beckwith. This is my Father’s side of the family. The event changed my mind as to what a Wake and Funeral could be or should be. Jack’s children called it a Celebration of Life and it was. The Beckwith family consisted of my cousin Carol who died in 2002, her husband Jack, who passed in October 2012 (10 years and 1 day after his wife.), twin boys, Derek and Geoff, from Carol’s first marriage, and their little sister Jennifer. Carol and I grew very close during the last 10 years of her life, and Jennifer is my favorite relative and as close to a being my sister as anyone I have. After Carol died I called Jack, just for a quick hello, every couple of months, because I liked him a lot and knew he was lonely. I only found out about Jack’s death via Facebook when Jennifer’s daughter posted a wonderful remembrance of her grandfather. I felt terrible that I was not even aware Jack was ill. (Jennifer had been keeping the family updated via e-mail, but I had changed our family e-mail last year and she was sending to our old address.)
As soon as I could I made hotel arrangements and to go up for the weekend for the wake and funeral. I arrived to find family member I have not seen in years all with wonderful memories of Jack. I had sent up some pictures of the family and there were hundreds of pictures on bulletin boards and on a Video presentation.
The next day, Saturday, was the Funeral Service. As Jack and his family are Protestant there was no Mass, nor was there a religious ceremony. Instead, Derek, Geoff and Jenn had arranged a wonderful heartfelt tribute to their father. Each of them presented a unique part of their father’s life, from his growing up to his early adulthood up to the time of his death. If you had a pulse, your eyes were not dry. Then 4 of the 6 grandchildren got up and presented their look at their grandfather. They did a masterful job. (Jenn’s 2 kids did not because they knew they would break down before getting started.) More eye wetness. This was better than any religious service could ever be.
It was a tribute, from those closest to him. It was great. So different than any memorial service I had ever been to. Usually it is a clergy speaking dryly of someone they barely know. This was the Jack’s family. Those that knew him best telling what they knew best. It was moving, from the heart and everyone there loved it and felt the love. Derek, Geoff and Jenn gave each other strength, — Jenn needed every bit. The grandchildren gave each other strength. We all learned things about Jack we never knew, even those of us who had known him all our lives. I did not know that Jack and I shared being an only child. It was the best memorial service I had ever been to. I was sad, very sad, that Jack was gone, but I was very happy about the life he had led. He really was a terrific guy.
After that we all regained our composure and made our way to our cars for the trip to the Cemetery, for more words of love, and taps played by a U.S. Navy bugler. After the cemetery, there was a gathering back at a restaurant, and the main topic of conversation was the Memorial Service, the presentations, ‘Jack would be so proud of his grandkids’, etc. He would have. We all were, and of his children. It reminded me of one time when my mother and father and I were coming home from a family get-together at the Beckwith house. My father said to us, “we are so lucky Jack married into this family”. Yeah Dad, we were very lucky.