No one likes to think about dying, less do we care to contemplate the death of the people we love. Notwithstanding death’s certainty, frightened and anxious about loss, we have become a death phobic society. Indeed, many people avoid the grief process, urging others to “move on” soon after their heart has been broken by a devastating loss. The status quo may well be summed up in words a recent widow shared with me, “It seems like I am the only one who cares that he is gone.” To her, we have lost the capacity to share her grief.
As people forego a wake or calling hours, memorial service or burial, the rituals surrounding death are changing, leading us to question the value of our funeral practices. Nevertheless, a recent experience reaffirmed my conviction that despite our death phobia, we remain compassionate and generous in honoring the lives of people who pass and in comforting their survivors. PJ’s death was unexpected, a shock beyond the imaginings of the countless people who knew and loved him and his family. As news of his passing spread and preparations to honor him began, hearts broke for his wife, children, family, and the school community where he was revered.
Visiting the family of a deceased person is a ritual practiced in many cultures. In our tradition this is known as “calling hours” and typically takes place in a funeral home, although of late, it has also taken place in houses of worship. The purpose of the visitation is to honor the dead and comfort the survivors, offering a chance to say a prayer, bid our farewell and give loving support to the grief-stricken. The visitation hours for PJ began before the appointed hour with a line of people wrapped clear around the building. Soon the line grew out to the street and up the street and into other public parking lots. It remained this way for more than 4 hours. A fair estimate is that about 1300 people paid their respects to PJ and his family, but the numbers alone do not tell the story. What I witnessed during these hours was a stunning, genuine confirmation that despite our aversion to death, we willingly share grief at its deepest and most painful place.
In a position to interact with each of the people coming through the line that night, I met the best of our humanity. There were PJ’s co-workers whose overwhelming loss was evident in their shocked expressions, yet they held each other up as they faced disbelief. There was the reluctant father who just weeks before was in this funeral home as a bereaved dad whose only son died suddenly. He stood for hours in line with a recurrence of deep, personal pain in his heart. There was the football team, some who had never been to a wake, and young people fearful of encountering a deceased body for the first time. There was the young man on crutches who waited hours but when offered to be brought to the head of the line, refused out of deference to others who also waited. There were countless youngsters learning their first lesson in death-loss. Encouraged by the support of their parents and teachers, having waited patiently more than three hours in line, I was deeply moved by their respectful, patient demeanor. PJ would be so proud of them. There were those who shared immeasurable hours of volunteering in the community with PJ, some who stayed the entire time, lending their support not only to the family but to the mourners. Some traveled more than two or three hours each way to get there, only to wait another two or three hours in line, their heartfelt concern a testament of love for PJ and his family. With calm and empathy each person who came to honor PJ and comfort his family reaffirmed that no matter how anxious death makes us, the dignity of our common humanity rises to meet our fears.
Upon death few of us will have so many mourners, nonetheless PJ’s wake and funeral prove that we can still face death together with grace. I didn’t know PJ personally; I knew of him. He was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things, clearly a bright light. The world has lost a genuinely good man. Even in death PJ continues teaching the ways of truth, compassion, and generosity. The invocation “rest in peace” seems inappropriate for PJ, a man for whom life was so filled with energy and activity. I cannot imagine such a powerhouse resting. So, I simply say, “Thank You PJ… Carry on…”