Monday, July 2, 2012

The purpose of funerals

I went to the funeral of a colleague last Tuesday. Bruce had battled cancer of the oesophagus since September but before that he’d worked at the Ministry for close to 39 years. On my fourth day in the job we both went to Taihape to see how the recently built Area School was working. I drove the rental car and he held forth on the history of the Ministry of Education on the way up and the history of the Property team’s drinks club, which Bruce managed, on the way back. I used to tease him about this later, once I got more comfortable in the job and with my colleagues. Bruce knew he was difficult to stop once he got going, and he sure had a lot of knowledge to draw on when on a roll.

I spent two years sitting on the other side of a partition from Bruce, but one of my most vivid memories of him comes from a conference at Westpac Stadium. It was the lunch break and I was standing in a group with Bruce, another colleague my age and a manager who’d recently stopped drinking wine on Fridays, enough to tell us she was pregnant. As we ate our sausage rolls and sushi, Bruce asked her how the pregnancy was going. She bravely said that she’d had a miscarriage. (This is one of those anecdotes that can be used to speak highly of either person...)

My colleague and I were lost for words. It seemed such a cruel thing to happen to a lovely person. It would have been her first child. Perhaps she might not get another chance. If Bruce was thinking these things too, it didn't show. He wrapped his arm around her and gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He said some genuine, consoling words. It was a kind of heroism to see this man rubbing this woman’s shoulder surrounded by bureaucrats struggling to eat club sandwiches.

At Bruce’s funeral we heard from his nephew, his school friend, a colleague (not me) and his daughter. Their stories shone light on new aspects of the man on the other side of the partition – his guitar playing, his teenage entrepreneurism — but also built upon the image of quiet heroism I’d been worrying over like a rosary since I’d heard of his passing.
The manager, who had long since left the Ministry, was there too. So was her two month old son (he cried more than anyone else that day).

It wasn't too late for her.

I’m sure the presence of this new life at his funeral would have cheered Bruce. It cheered me.

One does not expect to be cheered at a funeral, but there's always something uplifting. At least that's been my experience of funerals. The ostensible reason everyone is gathered together in a drafty church in Upper Hutt sucks: a man has died. But the real reason we're there is because he lived and we are drawn to be around others who knew him, if only for one last afternoon.

1 comment:

Claire G said...

Good tribute. Not sentimental, but restorative.