Earlier today, I had an extremely real-world experience; I attended Carmen McCall’s funeral at St Nicholas (Holy Moly). And sang. And cried. And hugged. And laughed.
It was… pretty amazing.
Carmen was a feisty older lady who in the last couple of years had major, major health problems. She had lived in Indiana and was very involved in volunteer work – especially in the area of AIDS and also at senior citizen homes. Her son is gay, and she always found the time to care for his friends and hug them, especially when they were lonely or hurting.
She loved animals, especially owls. When I first met her, she was using a walker to get around, and toting an oxygen tank in its carry-basket, and sported an owl rescue group’s sticker on the front bar. She had a real thing for wild socks, and one of the kids in the congregation always compared socks with her.
She was a gallant, plucky, forthright lady and she had emphysema and lung cancer, and she never had a self-pitying word for herself, and always had compassion and a cheerful word or hug for anybody in trouble.
She had a lust for life that would not quit, but she knew the end was coming – she was in church a week ago, and I sat next to her at Adult Ed (it was a discussion of King David). She was much as usual, participating in her normal way, with her walker in the middle of everyone.
She had long talks with several people – with a young woman who hasn’t been around in a while, telling her how nice it was to see her, and how much she’d missed her. And she told Douglas that she’d liked his solo on an arrangement of “Amazing Grace” so much, she wanted him to sing it at her funeral. He was only a little disconcerted, because we’ve all known how hard she’d fought the cancer. She was looking good the last couple of months, after a move to a place where she got good care and also she got her hair done and had help with her laundry. She looked really nice on Sunday.
And Monday night, very late, she died suddenly, so that’s why we celebrated her life today.
The church wasn’t full, but it was comfortably peopled. We in the choir had gotten the news on Tuesday or Wednesday, in time to rehearse a piece we’ve done once before that we thought would be a nice anthem -a warm and melodic modern thing called “The Peace of God.”
Lots of people seemed to be friends of Albert’s – handsome young men in pairs, and singles too, all in decent, decorous black or deep charcoal grey. Because of course, a lot of them have probably been to a lot of funerals. But they were there for Carmen and for Albert, and seemed like really nice people. There were also some people that were former neighbors of Carmen’s, and also some people that might have been from one of the nursing homes she’s volunteered at, or lived at.
We sang our hearts out. Douglas sang “Amazing Grace” and got through it, but you could hear more quaver in his fine, light tenor voice. Which really worked, you know. It was sweet.
The Gospel was an unusual one for a funeral; Stephen had chosen the reading about the Samaritan woman at her well, who meets Jesus and is converted, and immediately goes to tell everyone in the town about the man who told her everything she had ever done. It was another one of the interactive readings that Stephen has tried, and it really worked in this context – he had Valerie read the part of Jesus, and Douglas read the part of the Samaritan woman. And we in the congregation spoke as the townspeople, who heard the Gospel and immediately wanted to tell others.
That was what Carmen was like, except she evangelized with socks and hugs and cheerful words of encouragement.
Father Stephen gave a short “homilette”(his word, he’s a little goofy like that ) about Carmen’s life and how she came to St Nicholas, and then Albert spoke, and then anyone could speak. There were a lot of good, happy stories about Carmen and her funny ways. Most people really knew her well, but I didn’t. I’d been feeling regret that I didn’t spend more time with her, and that I didn’t let her know about the owl that visited our street a few weeks back, so I stood up and talked about that,and how the dog and the owl barked and hooted at each other, and how much I wished that I’d told her about it. And that if the owl comes back, I’ll know Carmen is there.
It was just a silly thought, but afterwards people came up to me and told me how much they’d liked what I’d said. And I told several speakers how much their words had moved me.
The final hymn was one from the new hymnal (it’s actually a Catholic hymnal) that Carmen had liked a lot – she’d been known to get up and dance when it was sung,with her walker and all. So Stephen announced this fact before the dismissal, and invited everyone to move or dance. And then when the music started, Stephen started dancing, rather gravely and gracefully, in his chausuble, and we sang louder and started moving in the choir pews, and then the other priests (we actually had 5 in attendance – Carmen touched a lot of lives) got pulled to their feet by Stephen,and they started moving around, decorously and with visible glee, to honor Carmen’s spirit and to express their happiness for her release, and her reward. The lines of the chorus had a bouncy “arm in arm” motif, which led to a kind of do-si-do move. Everyone was smiling, and singing, and laughing, and kind of not wanting the music to end.
I almost shouted “one more time” after the third verse, but thought better of it.
Afterwards, as Carmen LOVED potlucks, there was a feast of goodies. The prayer blanket we helped to make for Carmen was there, which made me sad when I saw it out in the lobby with the things displayed there that she’d loved, because we took a long time to get around to making it and getting it to her. But she had it for a few weeks, and liked it a lot. So I took it to the leader of that team, Donna, and said “Would you like to set a place for Carmen and put this over a chair for her?”
And so we did, hugging and laughing about her. Draped the blanket, set her picture at the head of one of the tables, and then someone else went and got the urn she was in… yes, and brought it to the table, and people sat down at all of the tables around, and we sat with Carmen and remarked about how nice she looked in her photo, and how pretty the urn was.
Carmen’s birthday is November 19, so there were two birthday cakes for herÂ – one of them a big sheet cake with a funny cartoon owl on it. And from a local bakery, a delicacy called a “krumkakke” in the shape of a pumpkin.
She would have loved it.
Several of us talked about loved ones we’d lost, and told stories the way you do about the funny oddities of death, and the aftermath. I told the one about Mom wearing blue velvet, and Nancy (Bill’s wife, I don’t know her well) told one about hiking up to her dad’s favorite spot to scatter his ashes, only to realize that in Real Life, mud happens. And that there’s no graceful or risk-free way of scattering someone unless you get to do it from a plane or a boat or an overlook, with the wind at your back.
Carmen will be going to be near her sister in Indiana. We hope to see Albert again soon – in fact, there were a lot of people who hadn’t been around in a while, and there was much happy greeting and catching up. It was a good sendoff, and a sign of this was that people were enjoying themselves too much to want to leave right away.
It was nice.
I think everyone there left feeling that they needed to lead their lives more like Carmen led hers – with head held high and hope never failing, and with compassion for other people… and a drawer full of funny socks.
[tags]Episcopal, hope, courage, socks[/tags]
What a lovely post, and what a lovely celebration of Carmen’s life that was.
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