I was in a cemetery today. I attended the funeral service for my friend, Bill Hubble, who recently passed away due to lung cancer.
The sentence I just wrote is a vast simplification. It’s true, but it doesn’t contain any of the real meaning of a complex relationship, or the intricate decline and death of a fine old man. That’s not the problem, though. I can simplify the story for any number of reasons, and it would be all right. You don’t need to be dragged through the details, do you? The problem for me is that somewhere, in the dance of death, the man who was Bill Hubble needs a fair representation.
The funeral I attended was an anonymous affair, conducted by a generic preacher, who had a smooth delivery and a timely joke to break the tension, but had no relationship to Bill other than a page of notes, and the fact that he was on staff with the funeral home. He read the words, distorted words that served the needs of an inner-child-broken daughter, not the man whose life we were there to commit to eternity. There were military honors for a man who served a stint during the Korean war, but the the bugle was an electronic device, playing a recording of honors while a young soldier held it to his lips. The two soldiers went through the motions, as they were taught, and handed a sloppily folded flag to each of Bill’s children, and even that act was a distortion of reality.
The day was beautiful, pitch perfect, and the cemetery was gearing up for memorial day. In a place where the memorial markers are all flush with the grass to make the mowing a perfunctory and mechanical affair, I found the scattered collection of little American flags fluttering in the breeze to be a powerful symbol. Not because I was feeling particularly patriotic, but because the flags were an expression of something, anything notable about the people who lay at rest in the backdrop of a hollow funeral in a field of flattened headstones.
I chose the flag 200 feet behind the generic preacher’s left shoulder as my go-to flag. It was where my eyes went when I needed to escape from the pain. The pain came not from death, or loss, or even grief, since the man in question has been gone, in any meaningful sense, for months now. The pain was from the service itself. Any funeral must by necessity be a pale shadow of the person it respects, but this funeral was not even a credible attempt, not even a three-swing strikeout attempt at being true to the man in the box.
If Bill could have somehow reconstituted himself from a brass box of ashes, snapped back to life, and found the memories that were stolen by Alzheimer’s so many months ago, he would have thrown a holy fit right there in the midst of his own funeral, because he was a man who could identify the truth, speak it against opposition, and damn the consequences. He would have recognized the layers of bullshit constructed carefully to reflect the desires of the (barely) living, and the failure to represent the truth of his life.
It wasn’t all bad. Bill’s teenaged granddaughter pulled a mighty length of courage and read a poem to her grandfather. I respected her feelings as well as her bravery. They both felt true.
The good news, in line with my own beliefs, is that Bill is now reunited with Joanne, his second wife and by all accounts, the true love of his life. They are beyond all of us, beyond our petty squabbles, beyond our gaping needs filled with lies, beyond our sly maneuvering, and beyond anything except the happiness that comes from true love set against eternity.