Essay #3: The Anatomy of a Funeral

I was facing a line of teenage boys.

All of them were in dark suits, their hair combed neatly for the occasion. Three or four of them were crying. Eyes puffy and red. Moist tears were running down their cheeks. They were seated right in front of my lectern. They were the pall bearers for the casket. I’m not used to seeing teenage boys cry like that. They were tall and strong with beautiful faces, the flowers of an Irish American family.

Several them were altar servers at the Cathedral. They were the sons of the lector who served frequently with me at the 7 pm Mass on Sundays. I had seen them check the candles for oil in the sacristy before lighting them, and I saw them don cassocks and surplices before Mass. It was a piece of cognitive dissonance to see them in their suits. No longer altar boys. Proto-adults. No more goofing off in front of the rack of albs and robes. Deadly serious.

Their dad, the lector, has a gorgeous Irish accent, and he lilted his way through the eulogy with a silver tongue. His speech was funny, tender, and a fantastic representation of the man he was eulogizing. He only lost it once when he saw one of his daughters sobbing out of the corner of his eye. I can see why the family chose him to sum up the life of his wife’s father, the patriarch in their family. His sense of humor was comforting and lightened their hearts.

My favorite story from the eulogy was about their grandfather’s name. Bob insisted on being called Bob by all the grandkids. Grandpa? Nope. Pop pop? No way. Grandad? Guess again. Granda? Not even close. Just Bob. Bob used to whisper his name into the ears of his grandkids when they were babies in the hopes that his name would be their first word. Their parents hoped for “Mama” or “Dada”, but do you know how much easier it is for babies to say “Bob”?

Everyone was laughing at that line. They needed a laugh.

During the Offertory, I climbed up into the choir loft to sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. The song gets done so frequently at Catholic funerals and weddings that many singers end up phoning it in when they sing it. I try to sing the piece like it’s the first time it’s ever been sung. The piece should sound emotional and immediate. I’ve sung the song so many times that I can trust my breath and my technique to carry the lines. This familiarity allows me to focus on the song’s intention.

When I finished the second verse of the piece, my music director spun around on the organ bench and whispered, “That was *lovely*. Just *lovely*.” Praise like that is rare from a seasoned organist who has heard the piece more times than they can count. I knew in that moment that I had served my purpose in the ritual. A well sung “Ave Maria” is spiritual food for a faith-filled family like this one.

When I got back downstairs from the choir loft, I decided to direct the acclamations and chanted prayers to the family directly. “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world… Grant us peace.” That “Grant us peace.” line was my final benediction to the grieving family before we all start into the Song of Farewell. I sang it to a wall of sobbing teenage boys.

The next night, I performed as a cantor at the 7 pm Sunday Mass at the Cathedral. The regular crew was there. The eulogist from the funeral was one of the lectors and his sons were in the group of altar servers. One of the boys recognized me from the day before and his eyes widened a bit. It looked like he wanted to say something to me, but neither of us knew what to say. I gave a silent, sympathetic smile to him, but the words hadn’t found their way out yet.

The Mass that night was celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, a feast commemorating the visit of the three wise men to the Christ child. We Three Kings. The Gifts of the Magi. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold for the Christ’s kingship, frankincense for Christ’s role as priest, and myrrh as a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and embalming. All those Christmas carols and stories came to life in the scripture readings.

When the Mass was done, I came down to the front of the church and saw the lector talking with another congregant. His teenage boys, the altar servers, waiting for him on the steps leading up to the altar and the chancel. That same son gave me another awkward stare. He wanted to say something. I didn’t know what to say. I brushed past him to express my condolences to his father, who always knew what to say. His father explained that Bob was his wife’s father and that he was able to get most of the way through the eulogy until he saw his daughter crying in front of him. He saw her weeping and he lost it.

“Imagine seeing your sons cry. Imagine singing to your crying sons,” I thought.

As we were walking out to our cars, his son said to me over my shoulder, “I loved your solo.”

I marveled at this. This was a teenage boy. A teenage boy was telling me, the pudgy former inhabitant of a white alb, that he loved my “Ave Maria”. It takes a lot for a boy of this age to do that. They shield themselves with a cool nonchalance and the guise of apathy. This kid let down his barriers and I finally knew what to say.

“I was so glad that I was able to give that gift to you all. Thank you so much.”

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

You could see the relief cross his face as he made his way to his family’s minivan. He said what he needed to say, and his sentiments were greeted with warmth and love. I thought about the tears that had been pouring down his face yesterday morning and I knew that my voice had carried him to an emotional space that he couldn’t reach on his own.

It’s the closest I’ll ever get to giving him a hug. My singing voice was able to say what my arms couldn’t, and I was so grateful for my gift in that moment.