Death as inspiration: what happens at a funeral

This week has brought me face-to-face with the reality of life’s cruel promise: I will die (you probably will, too).  A number of past deaths have allowed me to deal honestly with the matter of death and dying.  Death, in fact, has shaped the entirety of my personal value system.  Life is extraordinarily simple to me.  I believe we as humans are obligated, and should be happy to, live by The Golden Rule, and ensure that our “hyphen” has made a deep and lasting impact on other people.

The death of my mother in January 1983 slammed my life into a wall that brutally stopped me in my tracks.   And for a person like me, who looks for meaning in tragedy and loss, I have spent the better part of my 20s and 30s processing, shaping, attempting, failing, and moving.  Moving toward a life that FEELS right to me.  The only reason I have been introspectively investigating and challenging, then rebuilding, the beliefs of one Matthew L. Brandon is because  I have needed to find a way to honor and carry forward my mother’s legacy.  I am a far superior version of myself because of that wall I had to pick myself up from hitting.  I don’t wish the premature death of a parent on any child, but I believe God prepared me for it fully.

ONE FUNERAL, TWO FUNERALS, THREE FUNERALS.  NO MORE!

Fast forward to this week.  This week, I mourned the loss of two beloved relatives, and one deeply-respected leader and friend.  In each case, I listened as highly-intelligent people struggled to find important-enough words to express their personal grief.  They told illuminating stories, shared funny anecdotes, and made profound observations on the way to praising the people who had given up their mortal coil.  In each case, an emotionally-overwhelming picture of the deceased emerged and our healing was facilitated by those gentle, loving words, so carefully chosen, so admiringly delivered, so earnest . . .  These people — a handicapped man, an educator, a pastor — were amazing humans.

If only we could spend more of the time in our daily lives focused on sharing and celebrating those same traits!  Why must we wait until we can no longer hold a loved one in our grasp to tell them how much we admire them?  Why must the shock of death jar us into thanking one another and saying “I love you” to people who really do mean the world to us?  Why did it take a week of gruesomely accurate poems of love and appreciation to remind me that death forces, allows, gives us permission to be completely human?  Why do we need reminders to follow a simple rule about humans looking out for other humans’ needs?

HONOR THOSE WHO DIED BY HOW YOU LIVE

I honor each of those beloved departed souls by helping me reconnect with core values I hold dear.  In the face of death, in the shocking, numbing, acidic, bracing kiss of death and grief, I wipe away pain and lift my eyes to the heavens in thanks.  I give thanks that the path I have traveled has hammered me — for it has not been easy and the material God has worked with not the most malleable — into a sensitive human, concerned for the welfare of others, quietly doing for others only that which I would wish them to do for me or my family, and importantly, wonderfully appreciative of those moments when you know what you did mattered to someone else.  That is what being a better human means to me.

EULOGIZING MY MOTHER AND MYSELF. MEASURING HYPHENS

My mother’s is the eulogy I speak silently to myself at every funeral I attend.  It is why funerals are so emotionally raw for me.  Consider for a moment how it feels to revisit the moments and weeks when the very source of inspiration in your life was torn away.

And then I write my own eulogy.  Yes, at every single funeral I attend, I rewrite my own eulogy.  Then I wonder whether the ones on the podium, when replaced by those left to mourn my death, will speak nearly as well of my contributions to their lives.

In the words of Jesse Jackson, as I listened to him eulogize my beloved fraternal brother, Arthur Ashe, so many years ago, I use those moments to consider the “hyphen” that is my life.  Jackson reminded the thousands assembled there, you see, that the hyphen on Ashe’s tombstone — as on ours –represents the work he did and the life he led between that birth year and death year.  Then he wondered aloud, “what will your hyphen represent?”

So finally, I saw a way to make sense of a mother’s loss; figured out a purpose for my own life; found an ethos that could sustain me for a lifetime.  I needed to ensure that my hyphen made me a better human, and made someone else’s path a little easier to nagivate.  It is simple, and yet elusive for so many.  And for others, not even a desirable ambition.  But for me it was everything.  I knew it was a revelation because it reminded me how amazing my mom’s hyphen was.  It motivates me to live in a way that would honor her and carry on that tradition.  I get back to work on my hyphen!

I hope my hyphen will be good enough to merit the appreciation of those whose lives I tried to uplift.  Even if you didn’t attend a funeral this week; even if you didn’t hear the eloquent recitals; even if you haven’t been affected by the death of a loved one, consider the life you are leading, and the story that will be told by your hyphen.

WORKING ON MY HUMAN-NESS

For a moment, I explore whether I am completely human: not just strident and bold; but humble and caring.  Not just effective and efficient, but supportive and insightful.  Not just pleased with my own progress, but careful to ensure I do no harm.  Not just strong, but weak enough to consider where I can do better.  I need no’t wait until my final breath to wonder what legacy I will leave.  I get to go out there and work on it now.  Create my own reality.  Use the brick walls as stepping stones instead of blockades.

My eulogy yesterday and today reminded me how much I have left to add to my hyphen.

I am inspired by Johnny, Evelyn, Topper.  And now that you three are gone, my mother will thank you for the time you spent with me (tell her she is my inspiration).  My father will ask whether I am using the common sense he and the good Lord tried to instill (tell him yes, regardless of the truth).

Tell them I AM them.  I am their legacy.  And tell them I know I still have much work to do, loads to lift.  But I shun not the struggle, for it is God’s Will.  I will be strong.

I am strengthened by your three eulogized lives, each of which I celebrated in some way this week. And rest in peace.  I got your message loud and clear.

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