Funerals trigger reflection, move you beyond the moment, but can also be strangely uplifting. In the most obvious sense, they are sad for parting, consoling for those of faith, an inflection point. But there is something else, like the wind in trees, the feather touch of an afterthought, putting a day and life in context.
Sitting at a friend’s funeral, feelings flowed, music rose and fell, retreated, came again, like a dozen silver arrows, some pieces distant, others registering a glancing blow, some straight to the heart.
Like the man, they touched both ends of an invisible spectrum; every point on the compass rose, speaking to the quiet, reflective, and naturally introspective, also to the bold, courageous, and intrepid. And – thinking back – they spoke to those elements within every soul there, with intent.
Mozart and Bach, Copeland’s Simple Gifts, as lovely as but quieter than Fanfare for the Common Man, which might have fit. America the Beautiful was his opening prelude, followed by God of Our Fathers, Take My Hand, Precious Lord, later Gratitude, Going Home by Dvorak.
Then came unexpected cheer, smiling sun from a bank of clouds, sudden shafts of lightness, irrepressible optimism, a call to live not to dwell, give and celebrate, strive, struggle, and thrive. First, Band of Brothers, the Elegy, American Tune, Three Little Birds, and – of all things – Abba’s Dancing Queen.
From beyond, he reminded us – with undying conviction, faith in life, style, and a smile, to live. And then, before the onset of words, transcendent hymns, and earnest prayer, he gave us there – Amazing Grace and a different arrangement of America the Beautiful.
Unusual was what followed. For someone who wore our nation’s uniform 35 years, then again in service of mentoring America’s children, another four in high civilian office, his casket was not draped in the flag, love it as he surely did. It was draped in plain, poignant, powerful simplicity – cross on tan, no more.
In a gathering of hundreds, under spires of that magnificent church, silence reigned. Not a cough, sigh, word was heard; silent prayer ruled as if all that group together held their breath, and time stopped.
Hymns that followed revealed as much about those who sang, as about the soul for whom they lifted their voices, unlikely harmony. Reassuring was the realization, again unexpected, that so many who gnashed teeth elsewhere, here stood focused, shoulder to shoulder, singing hymns loudly – together.
They sang Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, and Precious Lord, How Great Thou Art, and Eternal Father, Strong to Save. No one left or talked mid-hymn. They sang as if, in one voice, beseeching Heaven. Strange for a divided city, especially this one, but also strangely comforting.
Words spoken, too, were unexpected. Humor echoed from the cathedra, lifting loss-laden hearts. People laughed, laughed openly, heartily, reminding us how funny humans are, especially when we poke fun at ourselves, as our departed friend so very often did. Humor brings us to earth, can be a kind of giving. Our friend gave it often.
His son spoke with depth, dignity, love, and again – humor. He spoke as only a loving son or daughter can of a loving parent. Severely injured, fighting for life in an ICU, his father had held his hand, squeezed, and – suddenly – fears flew. His father had that ability to care and comfort with his full presence. Just days ago, his son held his father’s hand in the ICU, returning that love like the return of Noah’s dove.
Yes, some days transport us, from worry to relief, murk to clarity, details to destiny. Together, those disparate voices, drawn from all walks, spoke – most from memory –The Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer, and then clergy offered thoughts centered on one word: “Remember.”
Several days on, that word lingers – remember. A book could be written about that word; a library could, a thousand libraries – in fact, that is what most books in most libraries are, a means and prompt to remember.
This is the thing: That funeral, like so many, reminded me to pause, hear the wind in trees, voice of others on the breeze, power of good people, good thoughts, good acts, and unexpected depth to lift and unify, give strength to those who need it most, bring people together around someone who did.
The funeral was for Colin Powell. The assembled spanned America’s unrivaled, wonderous, wonderful gamut, every age, race, background, economic station, demography, ethnicity, and political persuasion. Together, they celebrated life, an extraordinary American life, and the power of faith and hope to unify.
Sometimes events occur, and we do not feel their full impact until later. A funeral can do that, trigger reflections that linger, causing us to think thoughts otherwise lost. Politics aside, that funeral – like the man – reminded us that we all have more to give, lessons to learn, more in common than we acknowledge. In this afterthought, there is something – give it what value you will – that, to me, was unexpectedly uplifting.
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