Saturday, June 13, 2015

What I Said at the Funeral: Talking About (Life and) Death as a Non-Believer

Below is the text of remarks I made at my grandmother's funeral last week. The subject is a little more personal than what I usually include on this blog, but a lot of people told me afterward that what I said meant something to them, and a few asked for the text. And it may be useful as an example for other people in a similar position to mine.

So I want to talk a little bit about the idea of gifts, in a couple of different senses of that word. But before I start I want everyone to do something with me. Close your eyes... and take a deep breath.

[give everyone time to do this. Do it yourself]

Like probably everyone in this room I have been the recipient of gifts of one sort or another from Helen Nelson. On the one hand she sent me twenty dollar checks every year on my birthday and Christmas when I was a kid… and those were certainly gifts… but that's not really what I'm talking about. She also made me a very finely crafted needlepoint Christmas stocking when I was very small, along with all her grandchildren, and, eventually her own adult kids as well. And maybe that gets a little closer to what I mean.

I've been aware for many years of some of my deep debt to my grandfather Harold. As a minister he spent his life getting up in front of groups of people once a week to talk about stories, to tell stories, to interpret them, to ruminate on how they might help us think about how we ought to live our lives and how we ought to treat one another and to consider what in life is really important. He did it as a preacher, I try to do it as an author and cartoonist, but I'm very aware that in some small way it's a similar vocation, and it's a gift that came to me, at least in part, through him.

It's only in the last few years that I've begun to realize that I probably received a similar gift through Helen. She was a craftsperson and an artist in her way as well, as evidenced by her needlepoint work, which was very fine. But she was also an appreciator and curator of fine objects more generally. Some of my strongest memories of visiting the home she kept in Morris, Illinois are of the arrangement of the space itself and of the objects in it. For one thing it was very clean. No house I live in will probably ever be that clean and orderly. But it was also very thoughtfully and carefully arranged. I remember the commemorative plates arranged on the walls, the finely crafted spoons she had collected on travels in Norway and Sweden, and the little porcelain Hummel figures arranged on the end tables on either end of the couch. I loved those little figures. I related them to my own small toy figures, even then: my GI Joe and Star Wars figures. It was puzzling to me in a way, because they were clearly not meant to be played with – that would have been a very bad idea, and anyway their limbs didn't move and they couldn't hold a gun, so how fun could it really be? But they were clearly vehicles for a kind of storytelling and they were objects of beauty, carefully arranged.

My mother's house is similarly carefully curated. The kinds of objects are different, but the impulse is much the same. Both natural and crafted objects of meaning and beauty, thoughtfully arranged. The same impulse shapes the spaces in my house. And it's not an accident. You could say this sensibility is a gift that my mother and I received from my grandmother. But the truth is she got it herself from her own mother. One of my own most beautiful, most prized objects is the crocheted bedspread on my bed, made with meticulous care, by hand, by Helen's mother, Cecilia. This kind of gift has come
through her, perhaps, more than from her. Where did she get it? How far back do we go?

And that brings us to the next, much larger sense of the word 'gift'. And it is all of this: the air you just breathed in and the sky and the light coming in the windows, and the thoughts in your head and the people sitting around you. The grass and the trees outside, the sound of the traffic. It is, on the one hand, life. Everything. Yourself.

It is so huge that it can be hard to really take in, or appreciate. And sometimes it doesn't feel like much of a gift. There were times in Helen's life when she probably struggled to appreciate it. She had dark moments when she was a child. I remember a story from later in her life, at a transitional time when Harold talked about sitting down to balance the checkbook, and she got so frustrated that she ended up throwing it at him across the table and stomping off. It can be hard to appreciate at times. This gift we have is impossibly huge. But it's worth trying to wrap your head around it once in a while. And it is, for me, all the more profound because it is a gift with no giver. It is simply the universe, doing its thing.

The universe is made up of stuff. Dirt and ice and gases and dust. Stars and galaxies. And some of that stuff is us. We are made of the same material as everything else. We're only different in that we are aware of ourselves, and of the other stuff moving around us. We can feel it and see it and smell it and we can think about it, and talk about how weird it is. We can tell stories about it. We are aware. That is the gift. Our awareness. Our ability to take it in. We, in a sense, are a gift that the universe has given to itself.

So what does all of this have to do with Helen, and what we are all doing here? I've been using the word 'gift'… but 'gift ' isn't a perfect word. It's a very good one, it gets very close to the mark, for example, a gift isn't something you earn or deserve and neither is all of this. But the word 'gift' falls short in one important respect, which is that we don't get to keep this thing. It is only lent. We borrow it for a while, and then we have to give it back. You might say my grandmother has been giving it back slowly, little by little for several years. But that process was made complete a few days ago. What was lent has been returned. She got to hang onto it for 94 years, so it's hard to complain about that. And she had a remarkably full life.

As far as I can tell, the universe doesn't care if you say thank you, or are properly grateful. But I am human, and for me it feels very important to say thank you when I am given a gift. And to keep on saying it every time you think of how great it is, if the giver is around. And if you are only borrowing the thing, to express your gratitude again when the time comes to give it back. And that's what we are doing here, today.

So, on behalf of myself, and of my grandmother, and of the people who got to share a little in the gift of her life, to the universe:

Thank You.


Deedeebum said...

Your spoken words at your grandmother's funeral were a gift to us and for that, I say thank you!

The Oxen of the Sun said...

Thank you for sharing this.

charlotte said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

Ali Heredia said...

Thank you <3