The Funeral

The 2007 British black comedy Death At A Funeral features a lovable but dysfunctional family where the death of the family patriarch is attended by all kinds of disaster, until the dark truth about his life is revealed and his family openly faces it and commits to recognizing his good qualities along with his flaws. My father’s funeral was nothing like that. On February 8th, 2006, as I was at the home of my accountant preparing my taxes, I received a cell phone call from my paternal grandmother telling me that my father had died. Immediately our family went into a frenzy to fly to Pennsylvania to pay honor to my father, despite our various estrangements for various reasons, and when we went to the initial memorial service, my grandmother told me with some emotion that my father had never hurt me. The comment caught me somewhat off-guard, because it had been an answer to a question I had not asked, but that I was assumed to have asked. In most families, I suppose, the sort of early childhood I had would be the subject of immense gossip, but given the difficulties of communication I have faced with many of my relatives, no one ever thought to tell me the full extent of the damage done. When I asked my mother about it a few days later, her response was that she did not think I needed to ask the question at all. Since when has that ever stopped me from asking questions?

During the six weeks after my father had suffered a massive stroke while driving home from Ohio on a Sabbath in late December 2005, I had been deeply concerned about his health. Since the stroke, I had not been able to speak to my father directly, and from the optimistically worded accounts I would get from my grandmother when talking with her weekly, keeping up the pattern of weekly communication that I had started once my father had once again taken a place in my life after several years of awkward separation and a total lack of communication, I could tell that all was not going well, without being able to know exactly what was wrong. In my local church congregation at the time, there was a gentleman slightly older than me who worked as an occupational therapist, and I would query him about stroke recovery, as he tended to treat people who suffered strokes and needed rehabilitation. He stated that about half of the people die, and that those who recover tend to recover most of their strength and facilities fairly easily. From the fact that my father was not recovering, but was struggling with left-side paralysis, the recognition of diabetes that had raged untreated likely for decades, and a kidney infection, I knew that the news was not likely to be good, and when I had heard that he had been felled by a heart attack at least—such a sad irony that such an emotionally restrained man was killed by his heart—I had been making plans to visit within a couple of months, but we ran out of time. From his stroke, I had never been able to speak to him except with his mother as an intermediary.

When Joseph, the son of the biblical patriarch Jacob, was a lad of about seventeen years of age, he was sent to his envious brothers by his father. Let us look briefly at the story told in Genesis 37:12-17: “Then his brothers went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers feeding the flock in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” So he said to him, “Here I am.” Then he said to him, “Please go and see if it is well with your brothers and well with the flocks, and bring back word to me.” So he sent him out of the Valley of Hebron, and he went to Shechem. Now a certain man found him, and there he was, wandering in the field. And the man asked him, saying, “What are you seeking?” So he said, “I am seeking my brothers. Please tell me where they are feeding their flocks.” And the man said, “They have departed from here, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them in Dothan.”

There is a lot that can be said about the passage, but at least some aspects of it are relevant to my life. For one, Joseph was given a puzzle that he was not aware of, one that was far darker than he was originally aware of. While he had tactlessly alienated his brothers by telling them his God-given dreams of grandeur, which had led to their fratricidal hostility against him, he honorably and somewhat naively went off on his father’s errand, one that would see him threatened with death and changed from a pampered and spoiled teen boy to a slave in Egypt, and then from there into a prisoner falsely accused of adultery, all before he was able to find his dreams fulfilled. Yet he did not ask this mysterious man about his dreams, even though the machinery for making them true was coming to pass, as difficult as it was to understand at the time. So Joseph, smart though he was, walked headlong into danger by behaving according to duty and not realizing that there were people who wanted to do him harm. We are supposed to be able to love our family and trust our family, but sometimes we cannot. Home is supposed to be a safe place, a refuge from a difficult world outside, a place to find comfort and encouragement. Yet all too often, home becomes a place where people who are tied together by bonds of blood relation or marriage find themselves deeply entangled with problems that are altogether beyond their competence to solve, and which they cannot escape no matter where they turn or what they do.

About a year after the funeral of my father, I was back in Pennsylvania for the funeral of my paternal grandmother, a small and somewhat feisty German farmer, someone whose diminutive size masked her considerable shrewdness and canniness as a businesswoman. She was also someone who, like many members of my family, knew how to keep a grudge. Several years after the death of her late husband, my paternal grandfather, to lung cancer, her son David had killed himself via a self-inflicted gunshot in an alcohol-induced depression. This young man, about thirty years of age, had been tough enough to face the opposition of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents to his fondness for making moonshine, but he was not equipped to handle the grief of his father’s death, a man who though rough himself, obviously had formed a bond with his somewhat violent son. When my uncle had committed suicide, none of the churches in the small town nearest to the family farm would honor his memory because of his final deed, except for the Latter-Day Saints, and so from this day onward my grandmother would have nothing to do with what she viewed as the merciless churches of the town, except that she and a few elderly Mormons would regularly meet in the farmhouse for Bible Study at least one afternoon a week. I remember speaking with them occasionally when I would visit Pennsylvania during the summers. Even at her death, my grandmother had not forgiven the slight that the churches of the town had given to her son, considering him worthy of respect and honor, regardless of his sins and crimes. Just like her grudge-holding ran deep, so did her loyalty to her family.

Dealing with the death of my relatives would have been hard enough under the best of circumstances. My family is particularly small, and deaths are felt very seriously given that there are so few births [1]. Shortly after the death of my father, though, some of the people who were around me were able to intuitively guess what had happened to me as a child, at least in broad outlines. This greatly complicated the already difficult process of mourning the death of my father. Coming to terms with his death was made more difficult by coming to terms with the sort of man he had been, and what he had done to me. As evil as those deeds were, I could not simply hate him for what he had done. For one, I knew myself enough to know that I had a lot of the qualities that gave him such trouble—an ironclad sense of honor and duty, a tendency to be emotionally restrained, a love of cutting wit in dinner conversations, a love of reading and research, a tendency to bury personal sorrow and difficulty in tireless work and service to others, and a struggle to communicate the deepest truths of a passionate and private heart, as well as a tendency to deep loneliness and a susceptibility to problems with alcohol. That which I knew about my father best I knew because I knew it also in myself.

So I could not simply hate my father. Coming to terms with the man my father had been when I was a child was compounded with the fact that he had taken great efforts to overcome the evils that beset him. After my parents divorced, he had not remarried, despite his own intense loneliness, considering himself to have married for life, regardless of how other people acted. He had renounced alcohol, no longer subject to the blackouts and to the venting of his deep and horrible temper, although he remained a fairly critical person until the end, demanding a great deal out of himself and others, and not being very merciful to weakness until weakness overtook him. He clearly was of the thought, though he might not have recognized the inconsistency between his doctrine and practice, that by years and even decades of good deeds, of generous gift-giving and enthusiastic traveling that he could undo the damage done, that his good works would outweigh his immense sins. Yet he never repented or apologized to me. It was that which grieved me the most. While other people would let me know that they recognized the repercussions of my father’s death and its meaning, I had to deal with the fact that my father had gone to his grave without ever owning up to what he had done. Was I that pitiless and harsh of a person that those who wronged me could not own up to it at least? Am I not worthy of the opportunity to extend grace to the repentant? I would like to think that despite my deep hurt that I would be willing to be kind to those who had done me wrong, to be friendly to those who had sinned against me without a cause, and candid enough to admit my own share of such difficulties as I have with other people, but my father had not been able to trust in my own graciousness and mercy. I hoped at least, and I still hope to this day, that he had repented to God and been forgiven, so that the sins would not be charged against him when he enters into judgment. That was the least honor that I could give to my father [2], despite everything.

[1] See, for example:

[2] It is not without reason that I have long struggled with the fifth commandment:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Funeral

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