There are many reasons people do not attend the birthday party on Friday night, skip the informal college reunion or attend the local concert. Some are spoken clearly in text messages or in a short conversation after work, other reasons are never said aloud. Here are some of those potential reasons people give for not attending an event:
Overworked: “I am busy. I have to do a presentation at work on Monday morning, so I can’t go to bed late.” (Spoken)
Geographical Distance: “It is a 30 minute drive to get their house and that’s a long drive to only stay for 1 hour.” (Spoken)
Uncomfortable Around Certain People: “I am not going because all those people from___________(insert opposing social group) will be there.” (Unspoken)
Unfamiliar Setting: “I am not going because it will be awkward since I probably will not know anyone.” (Unspoken)
Fear of Being Alone at Event: “The last time I hung out with that group of people, I just stood by myself while that terrible music was playing really loud and I don’t feel like doing that again.” (Unspoken)
Fear of Awkward Encounter: “I haven’t seen that group of people in over 3 years. I don’t think I’d know what to say to them.” (Unspoken)
Sometimes we are legitimately backed up with work or the event is geographically too far to justify the trip. The “unspoken” excuses are what we do not openly admit, sometimes even deciding our response to decline an invite subconsciously. Personal grudges, possible awkwardness, past disagreements/conflicts and cliques we want to avoid cause us to segregate ourselves as we grow older. We sit at home, and the fragmentation of community continues.
I have especially noticed this in the post-college adult world. It can be frustrating, but there is one event that erases all of these reasons listed above. An event that does not allow for much thinking, but more responding.
People put aside their reasons without hesitation to attend a funeral. I want to reflect on the compassionate response by a multiple communities to my brother and his girlfriend's joint wake service/funeral in 2007.
Funeral as a Brief Reunion
My brother died in a car accident in Atlanta along with three other people in June of 2007 on the way home from an Atlanta Braves game. His high school sweetheart Suzanne was one of those people. He was 20, she was 19. They had dated for 3-4 years. They were on track to spending their lives together. They were a very bright, optimistic, humorous young couple, whose lives were cut short. A light went out in our lives. We were all devastated, scrambling to organize something to honor them.
Most “Christian” funerals are split into three parts. First----there is “the wake” or “the viewing” where people are able to speak to the family in a formal setting and tell the family that they are sorry for what happened. This typically is held on the day before the funeral service. Second, the funeral service is typically held at a church where there is a service where a pastor gives a message about the person who has passed away. Third, is the graveside service where there is a procession of cars that goes from the church to the graveyard where the body is put into its grave.
Since Daniel and Suzanne had many of the same friends, our families (Branson family and Cranford family) decided to have a joint wake service one day before the funeral. This wake service took up three different rooms at the funeral home. The first room was a chapel where people waited to walk through the line. The second room was where people could view Suzanne and Daniel's bodies. This room was large and that is where the longest part of the line went. Daniel's casket was on one side of the room and then Suzanne's casket was on the other.
Since we had a “double wake service,” both families were in the same room, which was the third room. The Branson family and the Cranford family (Suzanne’s family) had lined up right across from one another, my family on one side and then the Cranford family on the other side. In a way, it was like a mirror, as we faced their family. Suzanne had two sisters, Daniel had two brothers, each with strong parents----we faced one another in a mirror.
The first hour of this wake service felt like a nightmare. I was trying to hold back a panic attack most of the time, the threshold of my inner self was being tested. I could not hide. I was embarrassed because my head was shaved and I was overweight. I wore a random Carolina blue button-down shirt and some baggy khakis I found in my closet from high school. I’d been living overseas in Slovakia for a year so all my clothes were somewhat missing when I returned back to America. My mom had given the undertaker my favorite pair of dress pants to put on Daniel to be buried in. In a way, it felt like my family was being publicly shamed. None of us could hide.
I doubt I looked sane. I remember I kept pulling my ear lobe and feeling like my head was going to explode or that I might consider running out of the building. The experience was hellish and confusing.
But after an hour, I began to calm down. Part of this was because of the wide variety of people who had showed. While I did feel like my head was going to explode from anxiety, I found old friends from multiple local high schools, college and different phases of my life standing there in front of me.
My childhood friends Jed and Ben (two cousins) came through the line. These guys grew up playing basketball with Daniel and I from the time we were in elementary school. Ben was crying, and Jed looked panicky. While most people looked stoic and reserved, they both looked disturbed, and they actually looked moved and uncomfortable. This felt like a compliment to see them both show emotion.
People from the Ledford and East Davidson communities showed up to show their support. Daniel played basketball for East Davidson High and Suzanne was a cheerleader for Ledford High. They had formed this mixed group of friends from both high schools (which are rivals). All of their friends showed up for this funeral which meant people from two different high schools were in the same room. It felt good to see the Ledford and East people intermingled together.
Friends---who I thought had dropped into obscurity---showed up. My high school friend, Rick, who I had not seen in at least 5 years, showed up in front of me to tell me he was sorry. Rick played basketball with Daniel my senior year, (Daniel's freshman year). Surprised to see Rick, I briefly forgot I was at my brother’s funeral. At that point I had snapped out of my anxiety and was comforting people more than they were trying to find the right words for me.
Lizzie, who I dated my freshman year of college, showed up. I thought she still lived in Baltimore. It turns out she had moved back home. I figured she had better things to do than attend a funeral. She handed me a letter she had written-----which I really appreciated, since her father had died three years previously.
We stood in line at the funeral home from 7pm to midnight that night. I saw college friends, old girlfriends, old friends from middle school, cousins, people whom I been a jerk to in high school, cousins who I had not seen in years and various segments of my life all in the same place. The segregation of communities and social lines had disappeared. On this night, people had no excuses to stay at home, they showed up without overthinking it. I did not see fragmenting friendships, but people seeking to honor one another.
Deidre Sullivan points feeling of hope at a funeral in her essay “Always Go to the Funeral.” Her essay explains a lesson her father taught her growing up to always attend the funeral of people you know. Yet in her essay she also explains the feeling she after her father died of seeing the people who showed up to respect her father’s life:
“His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I've ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.”
Looking back at the wake service for Daniel and Suzanne, it was a real life experience of all the communities I had experienced (up to the age of 23) colliding at once. Communities were crossing paths.
I would give anything to get my brother and his girlfriend back, to see them married and attending our Christmas dinner with little children. Yet that's not what happened, it is hard to cope with 11 years later. The impact of his death on my family has been very real. I'm willing to talk about the dark times in my life since then. Yet I must point out this powerful reality I witnessed at their wake service. I cannot ignore the momentary homecoming and peace, like what is often described by theologians as "shalom," that I saw in the summer of 2007. I got a glimpse of what is possible. People dropped all their differences, priorities and distractions to come together and honor Suzanne and Daniel and our families. I am thankful for this.
Death can help us to push aside what does not matter. The question I want to know today-------what would it take to experience this kind of homecoming apart from the death of a person?
I Want to Gather With People Before I am an Old Man
Two months after the funeral, I went to pick up my other brother Kyle from football practice at the high school. Football practice had not yet ended. I was sitting in my brother Daniel’s 1997 red Chevy Blazer with the windows rolled down waiting for practice to end. The parking lot at East Davidson high school overlooked the baseball field and the field house, the same parking lot I had routinely got into my car at 5 years ago when I was a senior.
Daniel’s Blazer did not have air conditioning, so I was on the verge of sweating with the windows down. I struck up a conversation with an older man. We started talking about why football practice was taking so long. He was waiting to pick up his grandson.
Somehow, we started talking about funerals. I did not mention my brother had just died nor anything about his funeral. Yet he wanted to talk about funerals and I just went along with it, nodding my head. I wanted to talk about funerals------to process what was happening to me. And then he said was something. I wrote it down, the best I could remember because it felt so true:
"You know it seems like these days that funerals are the only place where people come out and see one another. I mean, where people gather. I might see people I know here in Thomasville (my hometown) at a football game when the season starts. People show up for football games. But people just don't see one another very much. If somebody I know dies, people will show up and they will talk to one another. But people come to funerals and talk and remember the old times. But ain't that the wrong time to come together? In our last days, at a funeral?"
I prodded, I wanted more, saying "For real?" "Yea?" "I can see that for sure." What he said was much more emphatic, candid and precise that what I've paraphrased above (though southern and old man-ish). I would pay 50 dollars to hear a recording of this exact conversation because it articulated how I felt about the whole situation.
This man seemed chipper and friendly, but the conversation came out of nowhere. Later I considered if this man was an angel from God telling me things that I needed to hear, during a time I needed to construct meaning for tragedy and mortality more than any other time in my life.
Is it possible that I could end up as a 70 year old man wondering why the funerals of my friends feel like reunions? I think it is very possible. I don't want to spend my thirties, forties and fifties so focused on my career and my little world that I forget friendship. The all-out pursuit of career and survival in the adult world is real. But we can also prioritize our own individual narrative over old friends.
If we fail to participate/plan in homecoming-type events in our career years, we can experience them at funerals when we are old. Let's not fail to gather during our 30's and 40's.