By Matthew Montague
If you are my family or friend, I’ve already written your eulogy. I know that sounds awful, but it’s just because we are close enough that your wife or husband or kids will come to me to ask me to “say a few words” at your funeral.
Over the past twenty-some years, I bet I’ve said a few words at forty or more funerals, ever since my grandpa’s service in 1992. Then there was my aunt and then her son and my cousin Larry, and then my brother Mike, then my friend Steve, and too soon after, his wife Evie. After that, I got asked maybe two-three times a year, sometimes by friends for people I really didn’t know that well. I appreciated their faith in me, but I had to turn them down because you need to be sincere first of all, and you cannot really be sincere about someone you don’t know hardly at all.
You need to be sincere, but not all wet-eyed. In fact, you need to be in control. People are looking for someone with the presence of mind to sum up a person’s life right after they’ve died, sort of write some history before the dust settles I’ve got a kind of outline to help things along but I always start with a story about the deceased I know most people in the congregation don’t know, but that they’ll recognize.
When I did my buddy Fred Jarrett’s funeral, that was easy since I never told anyone about the time Fred loaned me $500 to get to the next payday, but everyone believed in it since Fred’d give you the shirt off his back. Didn’t stop his wife from asking me at the wake whether I’d repaid the loan. She said she was kidding, but I do think she was maybe looking for a receipt or something. My wife Emma had some things to say about that, but then she asked me for real if I paid him back. I did, by the way.
People want stories, they want to start their memories. Taking a person from life to death is all about the memories. We want to add them up and wrap it all up into a package we put on a shelf somewhere in our head to take out and dust off at a family reunion or a quiet winter evening or a clear fall afternoon while you walk in the golden woods.
You want to tell a story about a time when someone was a rascal, I think. That makes the person more than a plaster saint, especially for the grand kids who are out being rascals themselves. It’s a good thing for them to know that granddad tipped a privy or two, that he danced with a woman before he danced with grandma, that maybe he was getting through some bumps in his life just like the grandkids are right now. And that he turned out okay and so will we.
It always makes me feel good to have a nephew or granddaughter come to me and tell me that they never knew that story I told about their uncle or grandmother, and that it helped them understand them better. I try to make myself scarce at the wake, only stay for as long as is respectable, but people always do want to shake my hand and let me know I did good. People always say they wished they’d spent more time with the deceased - we all know that, but we always forget.
You want to tell a story about how granddad loved grandma, even if they’re marriage wasn’t the greatest and especially if everybody in town knew it. First time they met stories are good or any kind of fight that turned out - how grandma left the high school party with someone else, but then granddad pounded down the driveway after them, losing his shoe in a mud puddle, and then pulled the car door open and whirled grandma out and into his arms, standing in the rain with a wet muddy sock. That he kept all those years. Something like that is good and unless you are a real bag of rocks, you’ve done something like that yourself. Love, or more properly, passion makes a person real.
You want people to know that the person we’re remembering was important to people. How they touched people and changed their lives. That’s been easy when I’ve done services for a schoolteacher or a coach, but just about everyone has made someone else better - a word at the right time or a support to people ill or grieving. Remember that night, the Easter Vigil service? When Wendy Coleman collapsed in her pew from all that standing and Harry Caber hustled up the aisle and blew the breath of life back into her body? I guess I’d better, Harry is a good friend. To the point, we are who we touch. If not, then why were we here at all?
You need to talk about something they were good at. We’re all good at something - golf, hunting, farming, fixing things, quilting, baking, banking, something. I told everyone how we could always find our house in those photos from space by looking for Steve Groshiem’s fields - they were straight as arrows and perfectly aligned. A man that can plow straight, that wants to plow straight, who is compelled to plow straight - that’s a man you can count on to show up at a town meeting or watch your kids when you got to take one to the hospital or hold a loaded shotgun in his hands in the fall woods as you drive deer towards him.
You need to make people laugh some. Not everyone likes that - some people think a funeral ought to be quiet and solemn with a few stifled sobs and a lot of tears. Not me. You can’t tell a joke, for God’s sake, but you do need to find something good. The poor people crying need to laugh to shake themselves out and find their center again after such a loss. Not too much, this isn’t comedy night, but I try for more than a chuckle. I want some real relieving laughter.
It’s good to have a verse from the bible to reflect on. The service gives you some material, but sometimes there’s something special you think of when you think of a person. One time, a granddaughter came stomping up to me at the wake to tell me that she knew for a fact that her grandfather did not believe in any of that happy religion horseshit and that this whole service was a real fake since it was only for Grandma.
And so I told her how that verse I chose was her grandma’s favorite, and that she had written it out and tucked it into every one of her husband’s shirt pockets after ironing. He didn’t notice for years, but when he did take it out and read it
“What came to be through him was life,
And this life was the light of the human race,
The light shines in the darkness,
And darkness has not overcome it.”
It was the second verse opening John’s Gospel and he showed it to me and smiled and asked me not to say a word to his wife about it.
The quiet ones are the hardest folks to talk about. And if you’re a quiet person and you’ve noticed me talking you up these days, asking you about your childhood, how you met your wife or husband, about the good old days, well then, it’s likely someone told me you aren’t doing so well these days and I’m trying to put together a decent eulogy for you before it’s too late. You can’t just wing these things, people depend on me, so talk it up and give me something to work with. I do hope you get better, but I do need to be prepared.
Because I’ve been unprepared. When Tom Kilter died, I was off fishing with some of the boys and we were hitting the jug pretty hard. We got back Monday morning only to find Tom in the funeral parlor and his wife in my parlor asking my wife if I could say a few words. My wife looked at me and raised her eyebrows. “Let me ask him,” she told Mrs. Kilter and then she asked me. I said sure, even though I thought my stomach was at that moment coming up my throat. The funeral was that afternoon and I was just not right. I hoped my long silences were taken as thoughtful meditation and not an effort to silently re-stabilize my digestive system. There was not a lot of laughter and Mrs. Kilter did not talk to me much for about six months after the service. Six months, and I felt bad about the whole thing. Still do sometimes.
So now I take notes and I tuck them into the slots in my roll-top desk in the parlor. At first, it seemed unseemly, but I will tell you, after Tom Kilter’s funeral, I cannot allow myself to be unready. People have come to expect me to tell a good story, to make a sound assessment of a life and to present it to them when they are least ready to accept it. It’s hard. I don’t take the files out until they’ve left, of course.
No matter how many times I’ve been asked, it’s still an honor for me and I take it seriously. I want to do a good job, I want people to usher you from your life to their memory, a good memory, a real memory, with a smile and a little laughter. So when your husband or wife or daughter or, God forbid, your father or mother come to sit in our parlor and ask me to say a few words at the funeral, it’s a good thing I’ve already written your eulogy.
I hope someone’s taking notes on me.
Published by Crazy Diamond Beef at Smashwords
Copyright 2010 Matthew Montague
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