This is another of those where I begin without knowing where I’m going. Bear with me.
About 15 years ago, I attended a funeral on a desolate hilltop in Wyoming. I’ve avoided weddings and funerals most of my life. This was only the second funeral I’d ever been to.
The first had been conventional, insincere — and an excruciating ordeal for everyone involved.
The Wyoming funeral was the most sincere thing you could imagine.
I barely knew the man being buried. I’d met him maybe two, three times. When he came on the scene, he already had cancer and probably knew it was soon to kill him. But he simply boiled with life — and with his love of freedom. In the short time he had left, he was an energetic and generous activist with the state Libertarian Party. (The Wyoming LP was pretty wild & hairy as LP’s go; this was not about mere politics.)
To my shame, I don’t even remember his name after all these years. But my heart still feels his funeral.
He had faced his death and planned for it. He had donated the land we mourners stood on with the intent of making it a burial place for modern-day freedom fighters. His grave was at its center.
Appropriately for Wyoming, there were no pretty gates or lawns. Just windblown sagebrush as far as you could see.
There was no church or plasticky funeral home. The graveside service was all. Someone burned a sage bundle. A young relative shot an arrow over the horizon to symbolize the man’s spirit flying away. (The shot was poor and the arrow wobbled only a short distance, which somehow seemed all the more touching.) Everyone had a chance to speak their memories.
But the thing that most stays with me is that this man had made his own coffin. He had labored long, lovingly, and painstakingly over the wooden box that would eventually hold what remained of him.
It was clearly homemade, and not made with professional skill. But it was well-designed and detailed — no plain pine box. I recall its varnish gleaming in the sun. And this — the time and care he spent on his own coffin — struck me as the most poignant thing imaginable. What did he think as he patiently sanded boards and applied those layers and layers of coating? What did he feel?
Really, I barely knew this man. I might have had a couple of conversations with him in public places. But the sight of that coffin and the thought of him working on it collapsed me.
I’m not much of a crier. But I broke down babbling and sobbing. No polite sniffles, but an all-out blubbering that wouldn’t stop.
His real friends and relatives had to have figured I was some interloping drama queen, playing for attention. Here was this complete stranger, runny nosed, purple-eyed, and audibly sobbing at their loved one’s grave. How dare she?
I couldn’t have begun to explain. Part of it was that I was at a point in my life when I knew I had to make changes, and the honesty of the way this man faced the biggest change of all not only moved me, but broke down barriers that needed breaking. I left that funeral a different person than I arrived.
I’ve forgotten his name. I’ll never forget him and his courage and spirit. And I will always be grateful to him. He gave a tremendous gift to everyone he knew.
My friend Jill died last April of pancreatic cancer. I loved Jill with all my heart. She was a good person and a good friend and I expected I’d be writing a memorial for her very shortly. But I haven’t been able to say a word.
I’m too mad at Jill for dying.
Yes, it’s completely unfair. But there it is.
When I tell you that, when I think of Jill, I think of material possessions, you might get the wrong idea of her. Jill loved things and she surrounded herself with them. She had tons of money (when I tell you that she and her partner had a stained-glass dome over their library, you’ll begin to get the picture) and spent it on art and aesthetics. Her home was a wonderland, not just because it had fabulous stuff beautifully arranged, but because she and her partner put their own stamp of intelligence and humor on everything.
Their great room, for instance, was styled after a hunting lodge, but the animal heads on the wall were all stuffed. I don’t mean stuffed as in taxidermy. I mean stuffed as in Bullwinkle Moose.
Jill was bright, funny, devoted to animals, a committed libertarian and a good friend to her friends. She could shoot, too.
Jill knew she was dying, but for a solid year she submitted to every indignity of chemo and radiation, despite the fact that none of it even made a dent in the tumor. In the last three weeks, when she finally accepted the comforts of morphine and hospice workers, she bitterly, bitterly regretted having gone through so much for nothing.
Her friends never heard her regrets in person, though. Because in the last four months of her life, she shut us out. There were a few emails at first, then she withdrew behind the curtain of her disease and refused to see anybody but her partner and the hospice workers.
After that, the only communications came from her partner — a cold man who’d always held himself aloof from all of us (but who loved and cared for Jill with impressive devotion). Her friends were allowed to bring cards, notes, food, and pretty things. We were never, ever allowed to hold her hand or even see her.
In Jill’s position, I might make the same choice to withdraw. I understand not wanting to see anybody when you’re sick, or even when you don’t look your best (and Jill was such a perfectly groomed lady that I used to kid her about being Mrs. Cleaver, doing her housework in high heels and pearls).
But for whatever reason, Jill … just disappeared. Afterward, there was no funeral. No scattering of ashes. No wake. No memorial. No gravestone. No nothing. Not a single friend got a farewell message or a token bequest. Although several of us did meet a few months later for a glass of wine in her honor, there was no other acknowledgement, no ceremony, no conclusion. Jill just … ended.
I always thought funerals were ghastly, unnecessary things. When my day comes, I don’t want one. But Jill’s abrupt, unmarked departure taught me how important ceremony can be.
I’m so angry with her for just leaving like that.
Yesterday, Joel’s battery benefactor Frederick “uncloaked” himself in an email to me. Until he did, I’d known only that the anonymous man facing death with such grace was somebody who read both my blog and Joel’s. He didn’t want anybody to know who he was, and that was that.
Now I know he’s someone I’ve never seen or had much correspondence with, but who has been a kind, wise, good-humored “friend I’ve never met” for as long as I’ve been around the ‘Net.
He’s apparently been that kind of quiet good spirit to many other people in many other ways.
I don’t know what kind of funeral, if any, Frederick plans for himself. It’s a strange subject even to think about. But already I know he’s not just “going away.”
Like the man in his beautiful oak box beneath the Wyoming sagebrush, he’s leaving powerful memories. Not just in the “random acts of kindness” he’s doing now, but in the way he’s facing and embracing life’s end (and I don’t mean just facing death, but the final acts of life).