The comical absurdity of me sitting down with a priest to plan a funeral was not lost on me. I am decidedly a non-believer. Whether you refer to that as agnostic ("I don't know and I don't really care.") or atheist ("Nope. Sorry.") is your call. It doesn't matter to me because I don't really use either term; it's a little silly from my perspective to label someone based on what the person *doesn't* believe in. But anyway, there I was -- because my dad was More Catholic Than You for his entire life, right to the end -- and, respecting the notion that it was his funeral and not mine, I made the appointment and sat down with a guy with whom, fairly undoubtedly, I have little in common, to work out the details of the service.
I learned something very quickly: wow....I still speak fluent Catholic when I need to.
And I guess that's no surprise. In the very-Catholic Philadelphia area, and possibly especially for people from my generation and older, Catholicism is not just a religion; it's a culture, an essentially ethnic bond that crosses traditional ethnic lines.***
So.... we talked the talk. And we got to a couple key decisions. I wasn't going to bother with a photo collage of my dad for his funeral. All of the good pics were from long ago and the later ones -- few that there were -- were not good at all. But I decided to go the opposite direction with the question of a eulogy. Yeah, I told the priest. I'll do that.
I left, with a long list of other liturgy-based decisions to make and email back to the priest (what hymns, what scripture, etc... Yeah, I know... Let the non-believer set up the liturgy. It was simultaneously ridiculous and yet something I swore I was going to take seriously enough to at least make it all, I dunno, *nice*) and then a thought hit me: "Oh fuck, what did I just agree to do?!"
It's not that public speaking bothers me. I have to do it pretty frequently for my day job (about which, you will recall, we do not ever speak): rather, it's just that I have never previously dipped my toe into the pond called Eulogy. It's a different talk altogether than any I have ever had to do, from a podium, to an assembled gathering.
So I thought about what, I guess, is the critical consideration for any "speech": know your audience. Well, the audience for this one was going to be small and could be broken down into three camps: 1. Family (not large), 2. His friends (very Catholic, very long-term, and, when he died at age 87, a dwindling group thanks to the ravages of old age), and 3. A few friends of either my brother's or mine, but we had both made it super clear to our friends that attendance was not expected in the slightest and, really, don't worry about it.
I amalgamated all of that into the following: keep it short, to the point, delivered without notes, and, most of all, real. I couldn't, and wouldn't, go up there and blahblahblah in a way to pretend that my dad's *death* was a tragedy. To quote the English Beat: "Being dead don't hurt. Only dying." In other words, his illness -- dementia -- was a dominant enough fact of his last couple years that I couldn't let it go unaddressed. His dying was sad and painful, but his death was a relief.
So, apart from thanking some folks who did very nice things for my father those last few years, despite his often dementia-induced horrendous moods and attitudes (and my brother made a special point of thanking those people too), the gist of my eulogy went like this (and I use quotation marks here just for continuity, not to denote that this is *exactly* what I said word-for-word):
"These last couple years, my father had a swift-moving form of dementia that wasn't a memory loss problem. He knew who he was, who we were, who the president was, what year it was, and he could even discuss college and grad-school issues related to my two sons. But his dementia robbed him of the ability to know *how* to act. And it was a mess. He behaved poorly and offended a lot of people those last couple years, me included. His death has really brought some peace to him and those around him. The dark secret of this illness is that it doesn't just take away the mind of the person with the disease. It robs his friends and family of good memories too. And worst of all, for those people, it leaves them with their last memories of someone as, by and large, pretty awful. So, here is what I will ask of you. However you know my dad [and I went through a list of personal qualities, accomplishments, etc. that don't need to be recited here, but they were all good stuff, from the good years] undoubtedly you have a lot of very good memories. He lived 87 years and did a lot of good things with and for a lot of people. When you think of my father -- particularly if you had unfortunate experiences with him these last couple years -- think about the good times. The measure of someone's life is their whole existence and he had 80-some very good years. Try to leave out the bad stuff at the end when you think of him. That really wasn't him. I know that's what I am going to do."
A friend of mine made me proud afterward: "Christ, I wish someone had said *that* at my father's funeral, where, instead, no one ever mentioned his dementia. Nice job."
Ditch those nasty thought, folks. We all have 'em, and, when it's all said and done, they aren't helping any of us.
Happy Father's Day. Give him a hug if you still have him around, and, if you don't, think something nice about him. He would dig that.
***Two small digressions: 1. To give you an idea of Catholic Philly culture and how ingrained it is in certain generations, my mom -- a wonderful woman who was both More Catholic Than You and More Philly Than Most Of You -- knew Philadelphia, and all of its suburbs, not by neighborhoods, but by *parish*. Do you have any idea how many Catholic churches there are in Philly and its surrounding suburbs? Me either. But it's a lot. And she, and many of her generation, knew every one of them and thought of the area not in geographical terms, but in parishes. 2. A true story about culture, not particularly relevant to anything, but it cracks me up every time: I wish I remember where I heard it, but... A young American guy is crossing the border into Northern Ireland back a couple decades ago when religion-fueled strife there was still hot and heavy. The border guards, two of 'em, start to quiz him. Guard #1: "What religion are you, lad?" Guy (uncomfortable): "Uhhhh...." Guard #2: "Come on, son. The troubles are in full effect here. We ask everyone this question." Guy: "Well, I mean... I guess you would have to say I'm an atheist. I don't want to offend any of you, but I just don't believe in god." Guard #1: "Come on now, boy. We're all atheists here. We just need to know if you are a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist."
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