Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Elton John--"Funeral For A Friend/ Love Lies Bleeding" (mp3)

I stood at a funeral, out in the bright sun of a Saturday afternoon, staring down at the cap of an acorn. We were high on a hill. Occasional leaves fell around us. The pastor spoke of the celebration of life, the connection with Jesus Christ that could never be broken, the deceased's confidence in this fact. With the angle of the sun, half of the cap was shadowed. An ant circled around the acorn cap, somewhat erratically, but still taking the same general path. I watched the ant for a long time. I wondered if it would ever try to climb inside the acorn cap.

Later, by my other foot, many more ants, not from an anthill that I could see, but still a community, out on a Saturday afternoon milling about, doing small labors, crossing over twigs and under leaves, carried out their own small play.

Something had brought them there. Death perhaps? Something that had landed there, dropped, used up, beginning its return to the earth?

I had known the woman. I had loved the woman. But the day, the sky, my own desires, even the slow journey of a leaf downward had overwhelmed me, and all I had to offer to the proceedings was the extended contemplation of those ants. They were not Hemingway's ants from A Farewell To Arms, clustered on a log and then tossed into a burning fire, meant to represent all of humanity tossed into the fire by an indifferent or malevolent god. They were just ants. But they were ants indifferent to the proceedings and unconcerned by the giant foot in their midst.

There are a thousand reasons to avoid a funeral and only one reason to go.

That single reason is duty. Obligation, if you will. To the deceased, to the family, to community, to one's job and the obligations that go with it. To friendship, to appearances, to peer pressure, to tradition, to your own history, to closure. But, oh, the avoidance of that duty is so easy. Who is going to call you on it? Who is going to challenge your priorities? With this latest funeral, one friend stood in my office and I could watch his mind cycle through the many reasons why he had already decided he wasn't going to go. But it was the fourth one that stuck: "I've been to too many funerals lately." Who can argue with that? So, yes, it is a difficult duty to fulfill.

What about love? Love makes you cry for your loss, makes you want to embrace the members of the family, yours or theirs, makes you miserable for the tragedy if the death was tragic, makes you wake at night with the sudden recognition that someone who mattered so much to you is gone. Love does not send you to a funeral.

My father, an 83-year-old man, admitted to me the other day that he had never been to a funeral. That would be something you would have to work at. He is excepting, of course, the funerals of his own parents. I missed my grandfather's funeral, I don't remember why, but I was at his mother's funeral--just him, me, and my Springer Spaniel waiting out in the car for the long drive back. We stood in a small room of the funeral home, just the two of us, and he said to me, "Well, I promised her I would do this, so here goes." He began to whistle the French National Anthem perfectly, all the way through an entire verse. Then we stood there silently for several moments. Then we left.

My wife, by contrast, comes from a very small town, a town, as I like to tease her, where people die more frequently than they do anywhere else. I base this on the fact that every time she calls her mother and I am in hearing distance, the conversation shifts to who has died since the last time they talked. As she reminds me, in a small town, it isn't that people die more often, it's just that you know everyone who dies. And what her father taught her is that the least you can do is to go to someone's funeral.

And so we go and stand and mourn and chat and fear and wish and wander. What else can we do? As Hamlet once said, in a different context, "Why, anything, but to th'purpose."

Perhaps this not-so-cheery post will be enlivened for you by, arguably, the greatest recorded moments of Elton John's career, available at


BeckEye said...

I've never been to a funeral. I usually have to be dragged to the viewings at funeral homes, and when I go I make a beeline for the other room. The one that doesn't have a dead body in it. It all just makes my skin crawl. I think all of the ceremony surrounding death is so morbid. I think cremation and a simple memorial service following by a raucous party is probably the way to go.

Also, that is my favorite Elton John song ever.

Billy said...

With precious exception, I prefer visitations to funerals. I go to the visitation if I know the survivors better than I know the deceased. I go to the funeral if I knew the deceased better than (or as well as) the survivors.

In some ways the visitations are even more awkward and awful than the funerals, because at funerals, you can be quite invisible and inconsequential, but at visitations you have to say stuff and wonder if the grieving party can even hear you or will remember what the hell you said or anything about the experience. And you look around, and there's usually all these people telling jokes in corners or smiling or reminiscing, not 30 feet from a corpse in a coffin.

jed said...

i like the invisibility of a funeral but i feel i pay better respects, somehow, at a visitation.