Why Did We Just Do That?

I mentioned a week or so ago that my grandmother passed away. She was 99 and had a very full, wonderful life which was for the most part sickness free until the very end. What follows is a personal story and I understand if you have no need to read further.

She was cremated after she died.

Yesterday we had the memorial service. It was at the Lutheran church that she always attended and pretty much the whole town was there. It is a small town in northwest Wisconsin – everyone knows everyone in tiny places like that. Being part of the immediate family I had to stand in a greeting line that welcomed people as they arrived. The greeting line was my father, mother, sister, myself, my wife and my two children, ages ten and six.

The service was the standard fare – a few singers, the obituary being read, the pastor with a small sermon, and several religious rites. Of course I got emotional during the service, as we all did. Tears were shed. At the end, a waltz was played at the request of my grandmother, so she could, in her words, waltz her way to heaven. The urn, which was at the front of the church during the service, was then escorted out with the family following, and then the guests. Afterward, lunch was served in the church.

After the lunch, the family went to my grandmothers house to go through her personal things to claim anything that we wanted, with the rest being donated for sale to the church that she loved. To be frank, it sucked. But I did get some interesting historical artifacts, some of which I may post about here in the future. Most importantly I got most of the family photos and other historical records.

We drove home yesterday and stopped for dinner in the Dells. While we were eating my ten year old daughter asked me a question that I did not have a good answer for.

Why Did We Just Do That?

She went on to explain that she loved her Nanni, and that she wanted to remember happy things, not have a bad taste in her mouth from a memorial service. I had to agree, but went on to explain that there were a lot of people who wanted to show their respects, and to perhaps hear some words from the Pastor as well. And that the people who attended wanted to say some words and share stories with us to try to make us feel better.

I disliked the service as well. I guess I don’t have a good answer to my daughter’s question. Do you?

As an aside, the Apostles Creed was read during the service and in it was a line that said “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church”. I was surprised to hear that in a Lutheran church, but maybe one of our commenters could clear that up for me.

12 thoughts on “Why Did We Just Do That?”

  1. I tend to agree with your daughter. Funerals are a great time for closure, for some, I guess, but I much prefer to have happier memories of those we love, which I why I haven’t participated in a wake until earlier this year.

    As Jeff said, it is a small “c”, denoting the Church as a collection of believers.

  2. My father’s family was very large. He was one of ten, his father was one of 12. They had been farmers, beginning with my great grandfather, for whom I am named. He came out to Illinois after working on the Erie Canal to work on the new Illinois and Michigan Canal, which ended at Peru-La Salle. That was in the early 1850s. He got a job in Peru-LaSalle as a constable and a second job in the glass factory that was there. He saved his money and, when he had enough to start a family, he went back to New York to marry my great grandmother. On his last day in the glass factory, he made himself a heavy leaded glass cane. That cane is hanging on my wall.

    The Civil War intervened and they stayed there until it was over. They then returned to Illinois with their two children born in New York. One was my grandfather.

    He bought a farm near the town of Odell. As the children came along, they all worked the farm. Nine were boys and all were healthy. My wife once got my mother talking about her mother-in-law and the subject of sex came up. My grandmother’s comment on sex was, “I had no problem with that. I never even came close to losing a child.” That was pretty much it for those pioneers. As his sons got older and it came time for them to marry, he would give them land adjacent to his own farm and require them to pay him back half the value. With that money, he bought more land. By the time he died in 1905, having moved to a big white house in Odell, most of the county was related.

    The Catholic church in Odell, St Paul’s, has a stained glass window immediately to your left as you enter. It notes it was donated by “Mr and Mrs Michael Kennedy.” He never learned to read and write. My father said he had never learned to figure on paper so all his arithmetic was done in his head.

    The stained glass window on the other side was donated by my grandmother’s parents.

    The only time I ever got to meet cousins in this huge family was at funerals which were always “downstate.” They were always sort of social and almost celebratory affairs as everyone in the family lived long lives. At one point, I got interested in genealogy about 40 years ago. I traveled down to Odell on a trip from California and asked for the secretary of the Catholic cemetery society. It turned that she was a very old lady and she remembered my great grandfather. That was a treat. The only other source about him and the others of the older family was what I overheard about them at funerals as the men stood around with a glass of whiskey and told stories.

    Funerals for me, as small child, were sort of family gatherings and were enjoyed, especially the stories once I was old enough to appreciate them. Even my mother’s funeral was, while melancholy, an occasion for visiting with family we didn’t see very often. She had lived to almost 103 and enjoyed life right to the end. At her 100th birthday party, I had put together a video tape of home movies going back to 1947, when I was 9. We had it playing on one of those VCR TV combinations. A surprising number of people came up and asked if I could get them copies. Some of them were in the movies and were now in their 60s. Some of them have since died.

    Maybe big families absorb these blows with less trauma.

  3. Very interesting story, MK, thanks for leaving it.

    “Maybe big families absorb these blows with less trauma.” I think this may be true. The side of the family that my grandmother was on is extremely small, at least ones that are here in the US. The only blood relatives that were at the service were me, my dad, sister and my two kids.

  4. There’s an old saying. “Funerals are for the living, not for the dead.” That is, funeral services provide a definite “time marker” for the survivors of the deceased. Usually, the deceased has left some sort of guidance for a service, even if only verbal to a next of kin, and the kin believe (in my view, rightly) that they should honor them. The service and the visitation periods that usually accompany them provide ways for the next of kin to support one another and for their friends to offer support, also.

    That said, we are now at a point where more than one-fourth of American adults say they do not want a religious funeral.

  5. Donald – I get that the services are for the living, just don’t believe that this whole deal couldn’t be done in a better way. Especially brutal are those who have a wake the day before, then a funeral the next day. I haven’t been through one of those in thirty years or so and am not looking forward to the next one.

  6. Christian Religious ceremonies used to be about hope and faith in the life to come and a sad but still joyful belief that the person who died was in a better place and that everyone would be reunited in due time. Most people now participating in these events, including the ministers, nonlonger have firm faith in these very basic Christian beliefs. As a result you have people who want to focus on memory and celebrating a life they believe to be truly and finally over, yet they are stuck with traditional forms that have a different focus. That is one reason these events can seem unsatisfying. A non-religious memorial service focused on stories and shared memories seems to work well for some families. Maybe your family could put together a collection of things from your grandmother’s life, and share that, as a more personal way to remember her.

  7. Catholic ought to be with a little “c.” One of the four marks of the church was that it was supposed to be “catholic,” i.e. “universal” in the original Greek.

  8. Agreed that it is a lot for the family to take to have a wake and then a funeral. It is very nice that the whole town turned out. She was definitely part of a community and appreciated and loved.

  9. Dan, thanks for this post. I agree with the others who indicated “catholic” should be considered in lower case, and derived from Greek to mean “universal”.

    I agree with Donald Sensing’s points about funerals being for the living. Glad to see my old JTF-Bravo buddy from Honduras is still writing, Don!

    My parental Grandparents’ generation migrated from Ireland in the very early 20th century, and began to pass away during my pre-teen years. Mother’s family had migrated soon after the Potato Famine, so were a couple of generations ahead in this timeline. I always did look forward to visiting with relatives, but felt a bit guilty that we seemed to be happy to be with each other, as happy as we were at baptisms, and more so than I would have thought at a funeral. I didn’t yet understand the concept of an Irish wake. When I asked my Dad once why everyone seemed to be happier than I would have expected, he told me we celebrated our relative’s passing on to a better life. Made sense to a 13 year old…

    We have in our generation moved out of the Northeast enclaves across the country, and I think we have missed something big, and important, in our diaspora.

    /Hugh Donohue

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