New York State Funeral Directors Association

And the first of two I’d later learn drank themselves to death not long after losing their jobs.

I don’t think it was clinical depression or anything like that. When people spend all day long working on their job and then the rest of their day – usually once the sun’s gone down - thinking about what they’ll do the next day at their job--there’s not much left to life when that job ends.

It turned out to be a ‘memorial service,’ or a celebration or life or some other catchy name for “not actually a funeral.”

I left the scene with a bizarre feeling I couldn’t define until I read “The Good Funeral: Death, Grief and the Community of Care” and heard its authors, Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch, make a presentation sponsored by the NYS Tribute Foundation.

I sheepishly entered the memorial room and many of the signs of a funeral were there: people were speaking in low voices like they were in court or a movie theater.

Some were dressed up in their “Sunday best,” a phrase I guess we don’t use anymore, and others you could tell never dressed up but did the favor of putting on a shirt with a collar.

There were what I guessed were family members of the dead reporter lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, receiving guests they recognized, doing that slow handshake with a frown and their heads tilted a bit to the side as they nodded in the affirmative to comments about the dear deceased.

Eventually, my eyebrows began going out of shape as I started getting curious, a bit angry I guess, and wondering what the heck was going on.

It was just a room – there was no coffin. I don’t even remember if there were flowers or anything else in the room.

I silently mouthed a question to a co-worker in my not-so-pleasant language, asking what the blank was going on.

The co-worker raised her head in a really slow, up, then down motion, signifying she deduced my ignorance, and then directed her head towards a shelf or a mantle, I’m not sure what it was, and she just looked in that direction.

Apparently, the reporter had been cremated, reduced to ashes and stored in a fancy urn for all to see. Nobody had filled me in on that fact, and perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered that I knew or not.

As soon as I could, I got myself out of there, dragging with me a nagging feeling that what I saw wasn’t what I’d consider due justice for the departed.

It was like a pretend funeral to me with the main difference being there was little of what I’d call “pain” that’s accompanied all the funerals I’d been too as an altar boy and as a youth with numerous aunts and uncles.

If I understand Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch, it’s that pain I dread before heading to a funeral that’s actually good for me, and for everybody else.

It’s a pain we as a society have been avoiding more and more often thanks to the mass cutting of the apron strings we’ve carried from organized religion which, a hundred years ago, dictated the steps involved in funerals without question.

It never really mattered why I’d have to go to the funeral home for a dreaded “wake,” I didn’t ask because in my family anything religious was spelled out and the “bottom line” was simple: do it or you’ll be going to hell to burn for eternity.

Nowadays, folks I’ve been considering “lucky,” those with no ties to organized religion nor set procedures for funerals, don’t even have “wakes” so they don’t have to kneel in front of the coffin and stare at the dead relative for a while.

As it turns out, I’ve been the lucky one.

I think my attendance at more than a dozen funerals that included a wake, wheeling a casket into the center of the aisle at church, following the funeral procession to the cemetery and praying over the grave has been a good thing.

I believe it’s helped me really appreciate life – seeing what I’ll look like sitting in a fluffy final resting box before being lowered into the ground—and it’s helped me truly grasp what it means to die.

I don’t know if attending so many of what I’d tell Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch were “Good Funerals” made any difference in terms of how I treat others, and I can’t actually define how these experiences impact the way I treat others today.

But I do know I left that co-worker’s service feeling complicit in a phony end-of-life ceremony that did me absolutely no good, that did the dead reporter absolutely no good and ultimately it did the family members and friends no good.

Every so often I hear discussion on news programs or on the radio about escalating violence among youth; they often lead to talk about violent video games and movies.

I’m starting to wonder, now, if relieving ourselves of the pain involved in a real funeral can take some of the weight of responsibility off of my Grand Theft Auto video game I seldom get a chance to play.

If we’re not truly grasping the reality and finality of death and what it means to us in our lives, I’m starting to wonder how we can truly appreciate our own lives and the lives of others.

Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch are raising a red flag about the fact that more and more often we’re having so-called “funerals” for ashes and keeping those ashes laying around.

It seems to me doing so never really allows those who are grieving to put that dead person “to rest.”

The same goes for attending a funeral service and blowing out early, avoiding the trip to the cemetery to bury somebody.

Reinforcing my belief were several questions priests and minsters posed to the two Toms during their three-day tour through New York in early April.

One faith community leader described a scene where a family decided to scatter a lady’s ashes at some scenic outdoor place. Wind kicked up when the mother tossed them and the lady’s ashes flew into the face and hair of her two surviving sisters.

The mother who tossed the ashes saved the potentially painful event by making a quip about the sister always getting into the hair of the other sisters while alive.

In other words, the potential pain of a bizarre happening was relieved by a joke. That speaks for itself to me.

Another clergy person who asked the two Toms a question settled the matter for me in terms of realizing we as a society are clearly moving in the wrong direction when it comes to “celebrations of life” after somebody dies.

The clergy woman said she encountered a family that wanted little to do with any ceremony or recognition of the life of their dead relative at all.

“How do we help that part of society that does not see worth in even having a death announcement,” the woman asked. That guy wasn’t even getting an obituary.

Long said it’s taken a half-century to break down the wholesome funeral practices that once took place in the U.S., and it won’t change back quicker than it’s dissipated.

It’s not necessarily that people are uninterested in funerals, they just don’t have experience in them.

Long said people sense the meaning and power in a thorough funeral service which has to be conducted as a “public, human act.”

“The best teacher is a good funeral,” Long said several times.

I hope the pair continue their tours for years to come. Not because they’re entertaining, which they are, and not because they’re both scholars who’ve forgotten the titles of more books they’ve read than I’ll ever read in my life.

I hope they continue because to me, Thomas Long, a theologian PhD and Thomas Lynch, a poet, writer and funeral director, are really neither of these things.

To me, they’re both doctors for our society, and little by little they’re traveling the country prescribing what I’d call Good Medicine.

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