A Funeral Story by Charles Baron
This is a true story of an experience I just had. Only the names are changed. Last Thursday at 6 p.m., I get a call from a woman who says she is looking for someone to conduct a Humanistic funeral for her uncle, a North Miami Beach man who died Tuesday at age 89. I said I could probably do it, when will it be? "Tomorrow at 3:00", she says.
Sarah explained that she lived in Queens, she was his only close living relative, and she had been making many calls to find someone to do a Humanist ceremony. Her Uncle Max, 7 years ago, gave her the name and number of a Humanist guy he desired to conduct his future funeral ceremony. The number was no longer good, and the guy was nowhere to be found. She found Humanist literature in her uncle's apt. and called the AHA (American Humanist Assoc.), and they referred her to the Humanists of Fla. Assoc., whose president (in Tampa) referred her to me.
Although I had plans for office paper pushing the next day, I had no Fri. afternoon appointments, and the ceremony was to be at a funeral home right down the street from my office, so I said OK, let's meet tonight. I met her at the uncle's apt. at one of those complexes with a zillion one-bedroom apartments on catwalks. Tell me about your uncle, I said. She explained that although she herself is a believer and attends a Conservative Shul (but doesn't keep kosher because she loves Chinese food and shrimp), her uncle was a very strict atheist, so she wanted to honor his wishes, his way of thinking.
Max had a life with a lot of hard times. Raised in Brooklyn by Greek Jewish parents, he lost his father at age 17 and had to help raise his three younger siblings. For that reason, he never wanted kids of his own. He fought in WWII, experiencing the horrors of war. Never married, he was a printer by trade and once had a radio shop. He retired to Florida 20 years ago for the weather and the less expensive lifestyle.
17 years ago, his sister (Sarah's mom) died, and ever since then he and Sarah spoke on the phone every Sunday morning. Sarah and her husband and kids would sometimes also come down and visit - but they could NEVER move to Florida because everyone is just so slow here, like the grocery cashier chatting with the customer in front of her the other day when all she wanted was to get a bottle of water and get out of there! On top of that, "we are liberal New Yorkers, and your politics here are yuck. We couldn't imagine living in a place that elects a Jeb Bush."
Max was a scientific thinker, liked to tinker with radio equipment and fix things. Sarah and Max got into phone discussions over the years about God, and he would say that without scientific proof of a supernatural being, he was unable to believe.
They grew close, and he gave Sarah a lot of money over the years. One year, they got into a yelling match on the phone because he was upset that she sent her two daughters to religious school, so he felt she was misusing his gift money. She finally told him, "If you want to have a say about raising kids, go have your own!" - and has felt bad about that ever since.
Max became an avid ballroom dancer at a local dancing club, a favorite activity. A girlfriend followed him down from New York, but he wanted to "play the field", so didn't stay steady with her. Then the girlfriend died in a car accident 10 years ago, and he was devastated. Sarah will spread his ashes at Brighton Beach, NY, where Max "loved to hang out with his cronies."
So that was the story from this lady who called me out of the blue to do a funeral. I told her about our group and CSJO, which she never heard of. (She didn't know she would find a Jewish Humanist - she was looking for any Humanist.) There's also a Humanistic Jewish group in Queens, I told her. That rang a bell - "now that you mention it, I do remember seeing ads for them", she said.
I read her a small sample of our funeral readings. "Fine", she said, while the look on her face was like, "that's kind of odd".
Since dancing was the biggest joy of Max's life, I looked through the readings for something that would apply, in vain. Then I flipped through a few issues of Jewish Currents, which has all kinds of poems, and found this right before showtime:
ON MY EIGHTIETH BIRTHDAY (by Muriel Harris Weinstein)
I want a flowery dress slinky silk, bursting with tropical blossoms where purple and fuschia hibiscus cascade over breasts in such abundance everyone will say, "Ahh, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon."
I want young vines to entwine my waist slide over my hips in green ecstasy, ribbon out with each hip's sway, shimmy with each thigh's thrust.
I want to strut past the Senior Center where guys will throw down their canes and walkers and bump into each other rushing to my side . . . to inhale my floral fragrance.
I want tiger lilies, oleander, bougainvillaea and orchids, to grow along the hem bloom in collision of chaotic colors and my feet will dance in that garden the ruffles on my skirt bounce and flirt, swing around my legs to jazz I'm improvising
and my song will grow crescendoing past tongue and lips as I swing my hips and sing till I reach the end.
I threw it in my briefcase, and in a black suit and cheerful tie, headed to the funeral home. I greeted the funeral home director and explained I'm from the Secular Jewish Humanists and would be doing a cultural, non-theistic ceremony. He asked me what cue would signal the ceremony is about to end; it'll be a moment of silence, I said. As I passed the yarmulke stand without taking one, I saw a U.S. flag folded in a triangular clear plastic case lying on the casket to honor Max the Vet.
Attending besides Sarah were about ten friends of Max's, consisting of women from the dance club, plus his home health aide and the owner of a Hallandale thrift shop where Max liked to go and fix things for free. The casket was opened, they said "goodbye", and a woman made the sign of the cross on her chest as it was closed again.
We got started, and I explained that this would be a Humanist ceremony, honoring Max who was a Humanist, believing in ethics, rationality, and dignity, but not religious. I hit the highlights of his life, did some readings and then the poem, which they liked. There were informal, spontaneous eulogies. The thrift shop guy said, "God bless him - I know he didn't believe that, but I'll miss him and God bless him!" I concluded with the moment of silence and some final words. The funeral home guy came in, took the flag and solemnly stated to Sarah as she was in tears, "On behalf of the United States of America, I present to you this flag."
I thanked everyone for coming and mentioned I am an attorney and this is a hobby. A dance lady said, "I can't stand my attorney - give me your card, you seem easy to get along with." Then everyone else asked for a card, too. I handed them out, right there in front of the casket, then thought to myself it would have been better to ask them to come into the next room. Next time.