Most of the time we avoid thinking about death and funerals. It’s a topic we’d rather not discuss, but as we get older, more and more deaths occur and have to face them. This week I traveled a very long way in the car, about nine hours, for three days of grieving, celebrating, and saying good bye.
In our family tradition, we don’t have as many opportunities to reflect and to spend time with people around a death. We have a funeral, and then a gathering afterward, and it’s just one day. But this week I experienced a much different way of saying good bye.
We went to the neighborhood funeral home at six pm and there in the back was Jim’s body, all dressed up and lying in the casket. Old friends and neighbors joined the large group of ten Cunningham children and spouses to quietly mingle and view slides on a projector of Jim over the years.
The following day, more family members returned to the funeral home for a 2-4 pm session, and then we came back again at 6 dressed up to meet more people. The second evening was a little more lively, and afterward, we repaired all 32 of us, to a local restaurant. The funeral was held the next day, and so at 9 am we once again assembled at the funeral home. Now it was time for the pall bearers to do their thing, and the funeral directors crisply kept the process moving, with polite but firm instructions on what to do next.
The long procession took us through Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill and Shadyside neighborhoods, to St Paul’s Cathedral, where we lined up behind the casket to enter and then took seats in the cavernous building. Amidst many readings from the gospel, I got tripped up when I tried to recite what I knew as the last line of the Lord’s Prayer that is not used in the Catholic church. Everyone but me stopped.
The Catholic cemetery is set on rolling hills. We all followed the hearse with our flashers on, and finally ended up at a small chapel. Sailors saluted as we entered, and taps was played, slowly. It made me very sad, it was an honor bestowed only upon military veterans. Then the two sailors carefully and deliberately presented the flag from the casket to Jim, the eldest son. “The President thanks you for your father’s service to our country,” they said. There were plans for 21-gun salute, but due to a mix-up, that did not happen. I mouthed the words ‘thank you’ to the female sailor as she stood in a salute and we drove away.