I went to a funeral viewing yesterday. A good friend's father died. I don't know if you've ever been to a traditional Italian Catholic funeral viewing. If not, let me tell you what it's like.
Before you enter the viewing room in the funeral home, there is a guest book to sign, a row of prayer cards and usually a card of remembrance, showing a photo of the deceased and his date of birth and death along with a Biblical reference or poem. And sometimes, the family will put out a photo montage of the deceased.
When you enter the room at the funeral home, there are a bunch of rows of chairs or pew bunches set up, all facing the open casket containing the deceased. The immediate family of the deceased sits in the first few rows closest to the casket. There are large baskets of flowers scattered around the edge of the room and lavish spreads of flowers, usually roses, on the casket itself, only outdone by the ornate crucifixes towering over the deceased.
The traditional protocol for this type of viewing is to come into the room, go to the casket and pay your respects to the deceased. Then you turn to the family, who rises, and you greet each person standing, much like a receiving line at a wedding. Once you have given your condolences to each immediate family member, you take a seat in the room and sit in silence. Almost like at a church service, but in this case the focus is not on any preacher but on the deceased lying in the casket perpetually staring at the back of closed eyes.
If you've never seen an embalmed body, it is truly a strange thing. The body doesn't seem real. Without the loved one inhabiting it, it is just a shell, much like a discarded Halloween costume. Rubbery face, formless lips, no visible eyes. Very odd. It's hard to imagine that anyone used to live in there.
As I was sitting there in silence, focused on this man who used to be, I was overcome by the grief of knowing that all that is left of this man is the memories that others hold of him. And I watched as each guest filtered into the room and paused at the casket. I wondered what memories will filling their minds as they said their goodbyes to this loved one. I listened as the deafening silence was occasionally broken by crying and sobs as these memories floated up into the minds of those left behind.
Shortly after my brother and I had arrived, my grandmother, the matriarch of my family, entered the room. Her husband (my grandfather) and the deceased were close friends. The deceased and his wife came from the same small town in Italy as my grandparents and spent much time together. He and my grandfather worked together, drank together and shared much of their golden years visiting one another. As my grandmother approached the casket, she began to wail. And the widow of the deceased joined her. The memories the two would have shared must have flooded their consciousness as their eyes met and they embraced.
I couldn't help but be moved to tears as well. I thought of my grandmother's grief over her own dead husband who died 15 years ago. And I thought about how much longer she would be here with us. She turns 90 next month. I shed tears over the thought of her passing. Soon she would be just a collection of memories in my own mind. And I thought of myself. Soon I will be just a collection of memories in someone else's mind.
Today, the melancholy is passing. I am reminded of the words of Robert Frost from his poem "Out, Out -":
"No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."