“Well, I’ve never been to heaven
But I’ve been to Oklahoma.”
-Three Dog Night
Have you ever walked out of a funeral and said to your wife, partner or whatever you have, “That was a great eulogy, but I don’t have a clue who they were talking about ?”
The opening line I had written for my brother’s eulogy was this:
“Michael would often throw me in the snowbank when we were walking to school together. He was in Grade 4 and I would be in Grade 2. He could be a jerk sometimes…”
My family wouldn’t even let me finish the line. “You can’t say that!” was the chorus of outrage.
Why not ? I thought. Not many people knew my brother better than I did when he died six years ago at the age of fifty four. And actually that memory still brings a smile to my face. The only better one is when I slammed him against the wall during a fight at home ten years later. Our parents weren’t home at the time and we were fighting about, oh, who had more pieces of pie at supper, I think it was. The impact of him hitting the wall knocked all the photos, paintings and prints to the floor and of course shattered their glass coverings to smithereens. The need to clean up the mess and hopefully hide the evidence before our father arrived home forced us to forget our anger and work together peacefully.
“You know, Michael, David just picked you up and easily threw you against the wall,” our younger brother Terry observed.
“Of course,” retorted Michael. “He cultivates his carcass every night.”
Really. That’s the way Michael talked. He meant that I worked out. Michael never spoke one short word when two long ones could be used instead.
The point is; he was human, not a plaster saint. And that’s how I remember him. I’m at a point in my life now where I at least glance through the obituaries in the Globe and Mail. Retirement allows me the time and my age grants me the curiosity to see if any of my peers have made it to their final notice.
Why do we feel affectionate towards some people ? At least some of it has to do with their own admittance of any shortcomings along with a willingness not to take themselves too seriously. But when I read a eulogy it often seems as if the world has lost an individual with the selflessness of Mother Theresa, the wisdom of Socrates and the generosity of an N.D.P. government. Why, I have to wonder, is the world in such a messy state if it was populated with such gigantic paragons of virtue? No one ever drank too much or cursed out their mother-in-law.
Oh, I guess it’s because only the giants of virtue have died, leaving us moral pygmies behind.
In his recently-published autobiography hockey great Gordie Howe reminisces of a car trip with a couple of ex-teammates to the funeral of their longtime coach and general-manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Jack Adams. Even on the way to the burial Howe remembers that some of the players couldn’t fondly wax nostalgic memories of the curmudgeonly guest of honour. When one old colleague allowed that Mr. Adams could be generous at times, another more realistic observer wasn’t going to swallow any such donkey dung.
“He was a miserable SOB and now he’s a dead miserable SOB,” was the unsentimental memory.
From what I read, old-time Asian religions involved a lot of ancestor-worship. Maybe some of that had to do with the fear of being haunted by the deceased. We like to think that we have risen above such superstitions today, but we still avoid “stomping on the graves of the dead.”
Despite the fervency of the fundamentalists on one side and the equal certainty of the atheists at the other end of the life-afterwards question, I am still stumbling about in the dark, much the same as I live my life. I’ve never been to heaven and not even to Oklahoma. I know that my mother would be generous in giving my eulogy but she’s not around here anymore. Probably what’s said wouldn’t be too important anyway.
But afterwards, just be sure that the sandwiches are good and the liquid refreshment doesn’t run out.