If you have had a death close to you, this might not be the biggest catastrophe of this pandemic. But in a way it could be. I have lost nearly 10 close relatives and friends since the COVID thing began. Only two got almost a traditional East Greenwich send-off: two restricted church funerals. The rest of them, nothing. No wakes, no funerals, no burial services. Yes, the events happened but they were restricted to immediate families.
East Greenwich, the community I grew up in and call home, traditionally has given its people proper send-offs. This usually meant a wake at home or the funeral parlor, a funeral at a church or the funeral parlor, and then a service at the burial site. Sometimes a wake will overflow the funeral parlor and spill out into the parking lot. I recall many such wakes, my father’s being one of them. He died in Florida the day before Christmas in 1980. We brought him home, here, and had a wake at Hill’s. I told the Mike Caparco, the funeral home director, that he better use the “big room” because everyone knew my dad. The man could get on an elevator with a stranger and by the time they got to the third floor, they were buddies. He could talk to anyone. Mike didn’t do it because someone else was already there so into the little room at the side we went. That cold winter evening the line went out into the cold. People came down from Providence to say goodbye to Dad. My mother always took great comfort in the knowledge that she had given him a proper East Greenwich send-off. We couldn’t do the same for her 40 years later. She’d been so long in Florida, she died at 97 with few around here who knew her.
I have been to so many wakes of those loved by the people of this town, where the lines form inside the funeral parlor and go out the door into the parking lot. To be denied the ability to say a proper goodbye to the one passed and to comfort the grievers is one of the many true catastrophes of this pandemic. I could name several wakes I would have gone to in the past year but we all have our own list of wakes and funerals we would have visited. The fact that we couldn’t visit means it wasn’t a proper send-off. Whether one is religious or not, it’s these traditions that hold a community together. A funeral is not for the one who passed. It is for those who survive, the grievers. To the person in the coffin, the benefit he or she got is the knowledge before his or her passing that someone would be there to grieve. He or she would be missed. To the survivors, it is the community coming together to help and to offer condolences. To me, these days, it’s like the person is here and then isn’t here any more. Just gone!
An East Greenwich proper send-off involves a wake, a viewing, a chance for one last look at the relative or friend. A chance to talk to the family. Then comes the funeral service, a solemn occasion that supposedly sends the soul off to the God of one’s choice in life. Then a burial service at the cemetery where everything solemn comes to an end and an invitation is announced to a more relaxed occasion involving good conversation and usually feeding those who have attended. It is the value of all four occasions that properly cauterizes the wounds of the loss and tells the community it is okay to carry on now. Without the proper services, the wound is never fully healed.
I realize, probably more than many, just how cold it can be to just put someone in the ground without this series of events.
I’ve been tending East Greenwich cemeteries is some manner for almost 20 years. I visit every cemetery every year, at least I try to. When I go in them, I take a moment to remember those who are interred and what their lives were like. I count the staggering number of infants and children who never reached adulthood and mourn for their parents. Obviously there are many, most, whom I never met. But this is my home town and I know their descendants, their families, their histories. It hurts me deeply that this town does not do a better job of tending to the 100 or more graveyards within in our borders. Of the 95 cemeteries we know of, most are in terrible condition. Anything that happens to right the wrong happens because of volunteers. People who understand that tending to the dead is the right and proper way to aim our futures. An airplane or a boat steers from the stern. The steering mechanism is at the back. Our future is directed by those who have gone before us. We should honor them as long as we ourselves are capable of doing so. They lived in their times and lived accordingly. We live in ours.
A good friend wrote me this line a few days ago and I think it sums it up nicely:
“What am I doing here is a question only very religious people and supreme egotists can answer. But I’ve thought at times about how making a mark, no matter how small, can show that I was here. If you don’t make a mark of some kind, then when the last person who knew you dies, you’re gone forever.”
To which I add that often, the last mark one was here is a gravestone.