This afternoon at about 4:30PM, a group of mourners at the Prince of Peace Anglican Church in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania stood facing four siblings on a bench while a naval honor guard saluted to a flag and to the siblings, and while there were prayers, benedictions, a three gun salute firing into the air over the road, and a trumpet playing a sad, slow rendition of Taps, as my stepfather was a World War II veteran in the Pacific Front, who participated in the liberation of the Philippines. Until nearly the last minute, I was not sure if my brother would make it (he didn’t), and we were not sure if we would be seeing two of my stepaunts, who ended up showing up and sharing in the honor given to my family. It is a strange matter to get to know so many stepcousins, some of whom were quite friendly, while one is mourning the death of a family member , but it is about the only time I end up back in my birthplace, after all. That said, there were plenty of people who expressed a wish that they wish they were not meeting me in such circumstances, and that is a sentiment I can surely share with them.
For me, the most uplifting part of the ceremony came at the end, when we mourners enjoyed a fine dinner conversation with others, and sharing stories about Jack. The husband of my step-aunt who is hosting my parents and I commented about Jack’s wicked sense of humor, encouraging him to water ski in gator and water moccasin-infested water, which he was unwilling to do. Others talked about his commitment to AA, his unwillingness to give up on anyone, his generosity of heart and spirit, his open willingness to adopt others into his family, his horror at prejudice, and his long struggle with anxiety and depression and social awkwardness. It would have been nice to be able to spend time with my cousins in happier circumstances, but all the same, if one cannot come together with one’s relatives for marriages or funerals, one doesn’t have much of a relationships at all. Fortunately, at least my stepfamily was able to get alone with each other and communicate for the sake of family solidarity.
The memorial, or “life celebration” as it was called at the Anglican congregation, was a strange mixture of different elements of religious ceremony. Part of it was eccentric quotes of scripture, with some gloss. Part of it was filled with familiar Gospel and Christian contemporary music (songs like “I Can Only Imagine,” which I sang along to, albeit quietly), Part of it was filled with references to the Apostles’ Creed and to various liturgical elements like prayers and homilies and the like. There was a call for communion with the wine and wafer, in a ceremony that seemed to blend a high church style with a priest in robes and incense with a low church sense of informality among many of the congregants, who might have found me to be a bit formal in my black suit and tie. That said, I hope everyone was able to celebrate and reflect upon a worthy life, even if it is never enjoyable to think about death. A man whose life was a struggle, but a victorious one, and who lived four score and ten, with good times and good friends, has lived a life worth celebrating. Overall, the mood was as festive and upbeat as possible.
After the ceremony I ended up with the pieces of documentation, if I happen to need them. For one, I ended up with a program of the life celebration, with about twelve pages of material, including scriptural citations, the text of prayers, and song lyrics. Second, I ended up with the program for this week’s service at the Anglican church, which included prayer requests for my family. My aunt/host then gave me the text of what she said at the reception after the memorial ceremony (where my mom and stepdad and two of my aunt’s grandchildren spoke to the congregants), and some of that text was quite interesting: “Dad suffered from depression and anxiety for a large part of his life due to low self-esteem. He asked Life Beaver if they could transport him to A.A. meetings, as this would help him have a support system that he was comfortable with. Life obliged him, so attending these meetings twice a week became part of his therapy and continues for other clients of Life with addiction problems.” A man who needed plenty of encouragement and help got it, and set a good example for others. That is a life that deserves to be thought of as happily and triumphantly as possible.