I just knew I would cry. From the first glimpse of that kilt and Prince Charlie jacket, pangs of sadness moved through my body like incense through air in a Buddhist meditation hall. He was there to play Amazing Grace live on his bagpipes, the hired Scotsman for the funeral of John S. When he took a deep breath after the eulogies, put his lips to the pipes and blew his heart into the ever-popular Scottish rendition I’ve heard at so many Scottish-Irish festivals, I couldn’t keep from crying.
It – the tears – weren’t for my husband’s mentor, a man of ninety years whom I’d never had the pleasure of knowing. John S had helped my husband begin his scientific aspirations with the government back in 1979, the beginning of a beautiful mentor- and friendship. They were, instead, for the death of a life: long-term relationships ended with the harshest of punctuation, careers long-ago retired, travel completed with no hope of return, opportunities never to be had ever more, animals come and gone, experiences evaporated with the final breath that was his last.
As my husband said for his mentor/friend when he carried him amongst his fellow pallbearers, John and I traveled the world together. It only makes sense I carry him on his final trip.
The day itself to celebrate John S’s life was sun-washed and mild, the funeral held in one of the busiest metropolitan areas on the Front Range. For just a moment, however, traffic stopped at intersections and entrance ramps as police officers ran sirens and lights, playing leapfrog in Dodge Chargers and Ford Explorers. Compliant motorists screeched to a full halt in the midst of their Friday afternoons while a line of twenty-two cars proceeded the ten-mile stretch from the funeral home to the cemetery. The final gesture was made with the last left-hand turn into Ft. Logan Cemetery. As police officers leaped from their cars to stand by the driver’s side, white-gloved hands were raised to the foreheads of attendant police officers gesturing the final salute.
In our everyday chaotic, hyper-connected, turbo-charged, techno-centric society, such processions to honor the life of the departed are exceedingly rare.
It wasn’t simply the ceremony of the funeral that gave me pause. It was the raw finality. Literally, a funeral is the final statement of a person’s life. There will be no other chances, choices or possibilities.
Your turn at life is over. Whatever choices you made are final, whatever chances you had – or didn’t – have come and gone. Whichever relationships or careers you had – or didn’t – are yours to take with in the memory that was your life. If they were the wrong ones or incomplete, accompanied by regret or surrounded by turmoil or misfortune, they are all yours. You take them with you to your grave. Whatever kindness or anger or sadness or joy, generosity or thoughtfulness, selfishness or addictions that were your way of being in the world are reflected in the whispers into the cold air in the words of others. Eulogies, those good words spoken at the final gathering to honor your life, will reflect however and whoever you were, no matter your thoughts or desires to the contrary or sweet agreement with the Creator. You are your own final witness, rendered forever silent.
Rarely do we have chances to participate in such time-honored rituals, to pause to reflect on the arrival of our own last moment. We take for granted we will have another Monday morning in which to pursue a networking opportunity, another Friday in which to cozy up to our beloved on a couch in front of a fire, or another Saturday on which to hike our rescue dogs up a mountain.
Perhaps the ability to reflect develops with the passage of time. The more years the years pass, the deeper I feel the impact of meaningful events. Expanding permeability has become synonymous with each passing birthday. When I was in my twenties, I thought my skin would grow thicker as I aged. Life has revealed, however, just the opposite.
Over is over. You get no more life. I can think of nothing more sobering or clarifying. I felt honored to attend John S’s funeral, even more so with the ceremony of it all. It lent importance and depth in a way I don’t often encounter, and it was a reminder that while I use up my own days here on this sweet earth, it will continue to be to speak for the animals chancing across my awareness, advocating for their needs and raising consciousness for the beauty they bring to our world. Animals may not be your thing, as we each have our own – but whatever it is, make it count – you never know if you’re going to have your own police-escorted funeral procession on a 60-degree day in Denver on a February Friday, and what those gathered to honor your life may have to say…