In my chosen faith tradition, the church year begins at Advent, just before Christmas (late November/early December), so the weeks of November leading up to this focus on things winding down -- including the ultimate unwinding called death. On November 1, we remember all those in heaven, both the named saints of the church calendar and all the unnamed ones whose acts of kindness and piety are known to God. On November 2, it is All Souls' Day. In Latino cultures, it is celebrated as Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) -- a day to remember those particular family members and friends who had special meaning to us.
And if you grew up as a Southerner, then you know that we treat the whole funeral/death thing with a special flair. From the second lines in jazz funerals to the notion of "sittin' up with the dead" we have our own unique way of looking at it. Little old ladies who fry up a chicken in the mornings or make a funeral casserole -- in case someone dies that day whom they know, they'll be ready! It's almost guaranteed that as soon as word gets out about a death in the neighborhood or the church, food will show up at the family's house within the hour. I have my own tradition of taking breakfast foods, borne of a need from my days as a church secretary. We had a death in the parish, and my coworker and I asked the widow what she needed from us (besides a visit from the pastor); could we bring some food for the evening, or....? She replied that she thought she had enough in the house but.... OH NO! She realized that her whole family would be descending on the house and she didn't have anything for breakfast the next day for the grandkids (you know kids aren't exactly keen on eggs and toast, not when they can have the Cap'n). So we put together a little breakfast package -- mini cereal boxes, juice, milk, bagels and cream cheese for the adults. It was a huge hit, and since then, whenever I am taking food to a family, that's usually what I take.
As a child, I went to more funerals than you would believe. In the first few years of my parents' marriage, it seemed that there was a family death nearly every December. The first one I remember was December 1975 for a cousin who passed far too young (just short of his third birthday). The next spring, it was my neighbor. Two more years, it was my mother's aunt, who was like another grandparent to me. Even if I didn't go to the funeral itself because of school, you always went to the visitation the night before. I had funeral home etiquette down cold by the time I was 10.
There have been tough ones -- older people, you expect. You prepare and you know what to say, the words about living a long, beautiful life, "he/she looks good" (even though you're thinking, "Wow, I didn't realize how much he/she had aged!") The worst are when it's someone gone way too soon -- classmates before you've graduated or years down the pike when their kids are still kids and not adults. Friends gone in accidents or by diseases which rob them too soon of life and leave their families hurt and broken, and friends wondering what the heck happened. Coworkers whom you just saw the day before. Those are the ones which don't seem real, the ones which stick with you.
The first one of those funerals came in the summer between 8th and 9th grades -- a classmate who died in an accident, who dated one of the girls from my church. Here it is 30 years later and it still seems so strange. Another one just before my senior year. As I get older, there are more of them. One of my BFF's from high school who died at 36. Three friends from college in the last four years, all of them gone way too soon and without any warning, all less than 50 (obviously).
And no matter how many of these I have attended, will attend over the years, none will be adequate preparation for the day when it hits too close to home. As much as I want to think they'll last forever, I know all too well that this is a pipe dream, a fruitless wish. My parents are older -- late-60s and mid-70s. I've lost both uncles-by-marriage and now one aunt-by-marriage. My oldest uncle just turned 81; the youngest is 68. They will not always be here. I know the time is getting ever shorter until that first phone call comes of "I have bad news....... (name) is gone."
But this is what is important, so important to recall: "Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come." -- Rabindranath Tagore
This is the great lesson of the feasts of saints and souls that my faith imparts to me -- that for the faithful, life has only changed, not ended. They are still alive. They have left one port and crossed the ocean to another. They are still with us, in memories, in spirit, in the legacies they have left us. It has been 31 years since I lost my grandmother but I still have her stories in my heart, the memories of certain ways she had of doing things -- I see it still present in my mother. It is never the same as having her here, there is nothing that could ever compare. But I take comfort in my belief that she is not gone forever. As long as I have breath, she still alive in me.
And this gives me reason to be grateful this November -- for their presence in my life and for the things they are still teaching me.