Saying Goodbye to the 100-Year-Old Man

Today I went to the funeral of a friend, someone I’ve only known for about 5 years, but who was one of those quality people who brightens the life of everyone he comes into contact with.

Ed lived just shy of 100 years. He saw 100 Christmases, 100 Halloweens, 100 summers and winters and falls. And up until a couple of weeks before his death, he was still driving his own car, still — IN INK — working crossword puzzles. A mere three days before he died, he was traveling country roads with a friend, riding and enjoying the warm springlike day, laughing and making bad puns.

After the lengthy opening by a priest, his two sons stood up to speak, and one of the stories they told tickled me greatly, as it was both funny and warmly, completely ED:

In his early years as a math professor, Ed had a math-faculty friend who didn’t have a car. Ed readily volunteered to help out, giving him rides to and from work, day after day. One day as Ed and his wife Barbara were having dinner in a local diner, the guy happened in and saw them. “Ed! I just got a new car! I can start paying you back for how kind you’ve been over the past year. You have to let me give the two of you a ride home!” Ed and Barbara happily accepted the ride home, thanking the man warmly as he deposited them on their doorstep, waving as he drove out of sight.

After which, the two of them walked the mile or so back to the diner to pick up their own car.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a religious memorial, and I had forgotten how utterly odd they are. It may be the ritualistic ceremony really does give comfort and peace to the friends and family of the departed, but they’re still, to an atheist, distinctly strange.

The opening I mentioned consisted of a retired priest / friend of the family welcoming everyone and asking all to be seated. He waved a program (there’s some more devout name for it, but it’s not coming to me at the moment), making sure everybody had one so they could follow the ceremony. The program is 15 pages long, and it consists of long sections to be read by the priest, but also included call-and-response sections where the priest reads one line and the celebrants read a line back to him, with lots of Glory to Thee-ing and Amen-ing and bowing-and-praying along the way.

It is 12 pages before the name of the deceased gets mentioned, which in this case was some 32 minutes into the ceremony. To my atheist ears, the entire show up until that time seemed to be an extended arm-twisting, moment-of-grief commercial for God.

Again, if it gives people comfort, I can’t knock it TOO much. And if that’s what Ed would have wanted, I’m entirely at peace with it.

But … when I did the memorial ceremony for my Cowboy Dad, the entire thing was about the man. Not only did I read his entirely non-religious eulogy, everybody at the event was invited to share stories and memories of him. There was a single Bible verse — “To everything there is a season” — read by one of his cowboy friends near the end, but most of the ceremony was meant to focus on the life and happy effects this tough, good man had had on all of us. The purpose of the event was to celebrate a man’s life, not to send a tidal wave of religiosity over the attendees.

I often wonder why African-Americans and Native Americans can be Christians, as the religion was so obviously used to bludgeon them into line, but I can appreciate that if you grow up with it and never examine any broader context, it feels good and right to you.

Looking around me at this funeral, I could see that THIS ceremony felt good and right to the people there with me. But it still put me in mind of, oh, a tiny little sandwich in the middle of a heaping platter of garnish, or that friend who does you a 5-minute favor, and then spends ten times as long telling you what a nice guy he is for doing you the favor. It was a lot of goddy STUFF and only a little of Ed, and I would much rather have heard more about Ed.