"Before sunset today, each one of us can think of the sunset of our lives. Do we look forward to it with hope and with the joy of being welcomed by the Lord?" Pope Francis
As the October anniversary of my mother’s death passes, and the Feast of All Souls approaches, it is inevitable that I would recall the many wakes and funerals of my loved ones.
There were particularly memorable moments at each one – some painful, some disturbing and some actually funny.
When my grandmother died I was thirteen and it was one of my first wakes. My cousin and I stood next to casket, supposedly praying. I leaned over and touched my grandmother’s face. When my cousin asked me how she felt, I whispered, “Like a cold potato.” Unfortunately, we couldn’t stifle our laughter and were summarily dismissed from the room by horrified aunts.
For my mom, it was the moment the casket arrived from New Jersey to the funeral parlor in Albany, New York, from which she would be buried. I was horrified to learn, just hours before the wake, that the funeral parlor in New Jersey had not “prepared” her – she had no makeup, her hair was not done, and she looked as bad as one might expect.
The new funeral directors tried their best to make her look presentable, but my mom wouldn’t have been happy.
One of the most painful memories was during my father’s wake. My youngest son had chosen to express his grief and love by drawing pictures and writing “I love you, Poppy” on little pieces of paper and placing them around my father’s body as it lay in repose. Crosses, hearts and crooked XXXs and OOOs were lined up with as much importance as the American flag, folded and resting on the casket.
His demonstrations of love had brought most of the adults in the funeral parlor to tears and one elderly on-looker was heard to say, “Oh look, he’s just like a little person.”
With that my son crawled up on my lap and said stoically, “I don’t like being a little person. It hurts too much.”
I hugged him tightly to myself and whispered in his ear, “I know. It hurts to be a big person, too.” In an incredibly touching moment he looked up at me and brushed large tears off my cheeks. We understood each other. We shared in the grief. He reminded me of a painful truth – it’s hard to be human.
It’s hard to be human because it hurts to be human, and it hurts for the same reason that it’s a joy – because we love. And it seems the more we love, the more we are open to hurt from loving and the experience may leave us wondering if love is worth it; if the vulnerability that is required of real love isn’t more something to be feared than something to be valued.
When my parents died within a year of each other, I designed a headstone that captured their uniqueness – carvings of a Celtic cross on my dad’s side, and an Orthodox cross on my mom’s, both graced with irises, my dad’s favorite flower. I chose a quote from one of my mother’s favorite musicals, “Brigadoon,” because it spoke to my grief, which felt eternal: “Here forever lies my heart. Your loving daughter, Mary.”
Thinking about it now, so many years later, I believe my dad, ever the Irishman, may have preferred a sentiment already written on a headstone in Ireland: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
Sure it would be the memories of a lifetime of love that he would want to leave as a legacy – the joy, the laughter, the lessons, and even the pain, because pain means that we have loved and there’s no better memory than that.
So, on this upcoming Feast of All Souls, may we celebrate loved shared, memories made and our journey together, with God.
Mary Morrell is the former managing editor of The Monitor and an award-winning writer, editor and educator working at Wellspring Communications. She can be reached at [email protected], and read at her blog, “God Talk and Tea.”