January 26th, 2020
As I age, I get to go to more funerals. That’s part of the deal with getting old. Mortuaries usually look very proper, and they try to be comforting in a quite, conservative sort of way. Every funeral home is basically a Motel 6 for the dead: each place looks like all the others, and nobody stays in a room for very long.
I went to a funeral yesterday. It felt awkward, but then I think most funerals feel awkward. This one was called a “memorial service”. I am not quite sure what the difference is between a “funeral” and “memorial service”, but apparently there is one.
The memorial service was for Rick. Rick was a friend of mine, although to this day, I’m not sure why. We really didn’t have that much in common. Rick was thirteen years older than me, and his political views were radically different than mine. We would argue fiercely at times, but we were always able to maintain a level of mutual respect and affection. It is rare for people to do that, especially now. I admired Rick for his ability to listen.
We had some things in common. Both of us had been Army officers. Rick had been an Armor platoon leader during the Vietnam era. I was/am a West Point graduate, and I was the operations officer for a helicopter company during the 1980’s. We could talk about the Army. We understood each that way. We both had strong connections with Germany. Rick studied German, and he sponsored German business students when they came to visit the United States. I lived in Germany for three years, courtesy of the U.S. Army, and I married my German wife there. We both participated in a German Bible study group for at least a decade. That brought us closer together.
During the last couple years, Rick suffered mightily from Parkinson’s disease. I visited him a couple times in the local VA hospital. I was hard to see him hurting so badly, but I’m glad that I was there with him, at least for a little while.
I met Rick’s widow, Teri, at the memorial service. She looked a bit rough, but then how else could she look? I also spoke with Rick’s son, Ricky. Ricky was going to give part of the eulogy.
I told him, “That’s going to be hard.”
He nodded and said, “Yes, I know, but I want to do it.”
I shook his hand and said, “Good for you.”
There were several speakers at the funeral. Most of them were classmates of Rick from when he was a student/ROTC cadet at Ripon College back in the early 1960’s. They all talked about “the good old days” at school. That weirded me out. Maybe it shouldn’t have. After all, most West Pointers usually have a deep nostalgia for their alma mater. I don’t. That shit is over and done. It is difficult for me to understand how people can still hark back to their days as students after forty or fifty years have gone by. I just don’t get it.
Ricky gave his portion of the eulogy at the end. He repeatedly choked up when talking about his father. He did well. His love and his grief showed through everything. I was impressed.
At the end of the service there was a military flag salute and the playing of “Taps”. Two Army sergeants in their dress blue uniforms came into the room to present Teri with an American flag. They moved in a robotic manner, and they took their time unfolding and refolding the flag. It was all part of a ritual, and it was meant to be an honor for Rick and his family. At the end of the ceremony, one of the soldiers bent down toward Teri and said,
“On behalf of the President, and the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept the gift of this flag.”
She accepted the flag.
I cannot imagine this happening when I die. For one thing, Karin, my wife, is a lifelong pacifist, and she would be shocked and offended by the entire process. I plan to make it abundantly clear to her that I don’t want it either. I was a soldier, but I am not one any more.
Then the funeral home folks played a recording of “Taps”. It is a beautiful piece of music that can be deeply moving. However, it has a limited appeal.
I don’t want that either.