I once heard a “This I Believe” essay, those little NPR audio-essays, about funerals. In essence, its point was this: Always go if you can because funerals are one of life’s touchstones, and they come but once for each person that matters to us. There are no second chances to be there.
Never mind that we will all “be there” ourselves some day (though, unlike Tom Sawyer, we will miss the chance to attend our own). The greater truth is we will all be the ones left behind some day, too. The ones needing help in the first phase of unmoored shock that comes with loss. And it is a shock, even when expected.
We are going to a funeral in Maine to celebrate the life of a friend who was ill, was in pain, and died this week. We are going because we can and because we want to. Yes, it has created a reshuffling of pre-holiday plans and yes, it has upset the apple cart of precious December time, but it’s also brought a certain calm, a certain reminder of priorities.
This is what matters. Whether a tree gets trimmed as planned does not. Whether the gauntlet of a shopping trip gets run does not. Whether over 100 Christmas cards get signed, licked, and addressed does not.
All that can wait. Funerals serve as antidotes to the poisonous rush, the stress, the un-holiday-like pressure to get it done and perform our parts in the annual mystery (as in, “Why are we doing this?”) play.
Put in perspective, holidays fade compared to traveling near or far to meet a friend, to hug her, to tell her loss is part of so many others’ losses; to cry a little, laugh a little, catch up a little; to remind each other that things like gathering after a death are our common bond with ancestors and the universe. Death is our common fate, something to be endured and accepted, part of the contract signed by our parents when we entered this world from the warm womb of darkness.
Some may think a funeral thrown into the two-week frenzy before Christmas is but added responsibility, but for me, perhaps strangely, it has had a wonderful effect. Thinking of my lost friend and the memories we shared has put me back in touch with my human side — something “the Christmas game” has increasingly failed to do over the commercialized years.
So I will go to the funeral because you must always go to the funeral, because I will miss my friend, because I must help others to comfort his wife. And I will thank God for this reminder: the holiday spirit lies not on Black Fridays or 40% off with free shipping sales or the “right” number of gifts (whatever that is). It lies in the lovely simplicity of each other — the part of life that existed long before Holiday, Inc., was thrust upon us.
The take-away? Feel free to not do something you must before 24 and 25 December. Instead, give yourself and your loved ones the gift of each other and to hell with tinsel-wrapped responsibilities.
Breathe, in other words. The once-long road has grown shorter for all of us, and there is only so much time to look back, smile, and remember it…