Early last week, I was privileged to attend a funeral. The mother of a friend of mine, infirm for many years, but nasty and arrogant and brutal for decades prior to that, finally succumbed to dementia, or the sheer weight of black anger, or what may have in her mind been the irresistible onslaught of the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man; huge and angry and smotheringly spongy, who in real life was simply the skinny white-shirted son who endured her fanciless flights with humility and grace and steely resolve. She is dead now, and he will be much the better for it.
It was a Jewish funeral — my first — a humble, quiet, outdoor affair that betrayed little of the rancid internal politics that has afflicted his family for a decade. The Rabbi was a woman; soft-spoken, tiny, and articulate in the way that religious academics can sometimes be; big words only now and then, but good and decent words aplenty, plus intermittent smatterings of Hebrew and song verse. She had a black ushanka and lovely voice.
I did not really belong there; lacking blood relations and an invitation, I came only to support my colleague (who did not expect me) and to try to observe and add presence as best I could. By “presence” I do not mean only physical presence, which most any damned fool can manage; I mean, instead, a kind of spiritual presence, such as I was able; a self-awareness and a keen attention to the direct experience of the world that can only be entered into with conscious intent, and moment-by-moment persistence, and the wish to actually be helpful. I note for the record that despite these efforts, I remain a damned fool to the marrow. But that is another story.
The service was short, but it was the opposite of perfunctory. I detected something genuine transpiring in the cold, gray morning; it was ordinary in the best sense, and yet I cannot name it. I suppose that death is like that if we bother to attend to it. Mostly, of course, we don’t. Our society places death off to the side, just out of plain view; plasticized on the silver screen; cloistered behind parlor doors; sunken beneath white-linened gurneys; glistening under sterile grocery shrink-wrap. And yet, it is never out of reach, not even a little. Death is so terribly, humblingly ordinary.
I learned that Jewish tradition invites family members and attendees to shovel dirt over the lowered casket. This is meant to be a solemn and slow affair, as if to demonstrate great reluctance, even until the end, about what must be done in this otherwise entirely ordinary matter. Some in attendance offered a single shovel full; some offered several. Many inverted the shovel, as if to emphasize their reluctance. I found this to be a moving and powerful gesture; a calculated inefficiency to slow the effort; a symbol of uniqueness that would not be duplicated anywhere else, under any other circumstance; a forthright statement about the topsy-turvy insanity of the world.
I came away from the ceremony more quietly than I entered, with an elevated sense of impermanence and the sweet taste of cool autumn tucked in under the soft palate. The rest of my day was busy, but unhurried; steady, but unusually productive. I was grateful to have attended, and took away much more than I gave.
I have written about this experience in order to provide some context for what follows. Deborah Coffman, a friend and colleague from decades past, was likewise buried yesterday, and she is as different a case, both in life and in death, as one can possibly imagine.
Debbie is the first contemporary in my life to die; she was only 59, and seven years my elder. This is close enough for discomfort. I have had no contact with her since we all departed our marketing jobs at Nortel Networks, but I regarded her then as a good friend, and as a sweet and decent human being of the kind that is rare anywhere, and vanishingly improbable in corporate America. As in the previous case, I felt that I did not really belong at the service, but the impression she left was powerful enough to compel my attendance, despite any discomfort that might arise. As I consider it, this is as lovely a testimonial as I could possibly offer.
The funeral service was to be held at Debbie’s church in Mendon, NY, where she was a decades-long member and a Deacon. I do not visit Mendon much any more. I lived there for several years when my wife and I were first married, and nearby for many years prior to that during in an earlier marriage. I think of Mendon as my home soil; it is wonderful, rolling, gentrified country, and I have always loved the hills and horses and cornfield farmland. I often miss living there now, and sometimes keenly so. We lost our Mendon home to hard times some years back; we had lived in a beautiful Garrison Colonial that I still sometimes will pass en route to my doctor’s office and parts west. For me, it represents the better times and the professional potential that I once harbored and subsequently lost. Mendon, for me, is melancholy.
Unsurprisingly, I entered the church with a tender heart and wet eyes; softened somewhat from my normal cynical demeanor. Mendon and premature death and a wistful autumn morning can do this. I found my way through a few outer rooms full of smiles and suspicious laughter, and into the sanctuary proper — a large, plainspoken affair with little in the way of conventional religious attention to aesthetic detail. No mahogany lectern with bone inlay; no wooden pews to sow congregational discomfort; no evidence of organ pipes or choir balconies or nave and transept late-gothic fan vaulting. Plenty of soft blue chairs, though, and plenty of electronic gadgetry; screens and speakers and a synthesizer-cum piano, or pipe organ, or one-man monkey grinder.
With three exceptions, I knew no one in attendance. I greeted them each briefly, but I was in no mood to make small talk — I rarely am — and I quickly found a seat on my own, situated somewhere between communal support and morbid curiosity, and not terribly far from that infernal synthesizer. A little later I noticed that a former boss had also arrived. This did not surprise me; Debbie had worked for him for several years during which she was routinely tempted to dispense with her hard-earned standing as a good Christian woman. This more or less guaranteed that I wouldn’t be conversing with any one after the service either; I am not a gregarious fellow by nature, and this gentleman is the type of person that reminds me why this is so.
Neither am I a religious man — not, at least, in the sense that most people make use of the word. I no longer truck with organized religion, having learned the hard way about the awful price in psychology and reason that must be paid for a weekly feel-good pow-wow with slippery answers to difficult questions and the mid-summer LGBT-free church-sponsored Boy Scout troop hoagie sale. I do not favor the congregational mindset, and I do not much care for black-robed pseudo-academic father figures that proselytize in earnest tones about thrice-translated mumbo jumbo from antiquity. Perhaps if they wore ushankas instead, and saw fit to speak to people, rather than at them.
Institutional religion is a sign of the ignorance and youth of our species, and in this regard, I am sorry to report that this particular church was exemplary. I need not divulge the details, because I do not wish to dishonor Debbie by excoriating her church, and you are perfectly capable of using your imagination. She spent much of her life in service to this organization, and I have no doubt whatever that they benefitted immensely from her work. Presumably, she would have approved of what transpired. And yet, what transpired was only slightly about her, which is mighty odd for a funeral. God and preachers and religion itself were far more predominant, with one Deborah E. Coffman offered up as the erstwhile instructional homily. It might have taken place on any given Sunday morning, just prior to popcorn and beer and the Buffalo Bills and good Christ the ref is a fucking idiot. I found myself repeatedly torn away from proper efforts to ponder Debbie’s life and the brief intersection of our paths in the world — by electronic music, and teleprompters in triplicate, and the myriad trappings of modern whitebread magical thinking, packaged to evoke maximum emotion in the one circumstance in which no such packaging is even remotely necessary.
There is the sublime, and there is the ridiculous, and then there is Scientology, or Branch Davidianism, or garden-variety inbred polygamy. Somewhere in-between is this form of feel-good new age supplication; lacking the soul of the east, the heart of the south, mistaking volume for sincerity, and given to programming children of all ages with poison pills and platitudes. One attends a funeral to weep, but not for this reason.
Debbie was afflicted with liver cancer. I am given to understand that she struggled with this diagnosis for the last several years of her life, and only stopped working a couple of weeks before her death when the pain became too great to manage. It was said repeatedly that she had never uttered an unkind word about another human being, and this is entirely in keeping with the Debbie Coffman that I knew. The testimonials given by her children were homespun and touching; last I had seen them, they were approaching two-wheelers with equal parts enthusiasm and trepidation. It was another perfectly ordinary shock, but a shock nonetheless.
I come away with an extremely positive impression of the woman that I lost touch with, and with the conviction that she harbored strength and dignity and kindness and common decency of the most rarified kind — a kind, sadly, that many, and myself in particular, do not also possess.
I am deeply saddened that such a fine woman was taken at so young an age. I am troubled that she spent her formidable gifts of character in such copious amounts for such dubious religious enterprise. And I am certain that her church will claim credit for those gifts and that effort, when it is entirely clear to me that no such credit is due. One senses instead that Debbie’s essential character predates her religious predilections by centuries, perhaps, and that it will endure long after the next religious war tramples another promising Renaissance back into the dust from which we all arise, and to which we all return.
I am honored to have known Debbie Coffman. May she rest in peace.