THOUGHTS ON A FUNERAL
It doesn’t seem like 14 years have passed since I sat in the National Cathedral for my father’s service. I can still feel the quiet heaviness of the air inside; there is a sense in that place that even a whisper will echo. The stained glass windows stretch gloriously upward, as if they are determined to graze the hem of Heaven. As public as the service was — cameras recording everything — there was also a feeling of intimacy. We were in a house of worship, with all the solemnity and introspection that comes along with that. We were lucky in that no elected official conspicuously refused to participate in the hymns or scriptural readings, as Donald Trump did at President Bush’s service. I wonder if he and Melania planned that ahead of time — said to each other on the way over, “Just don’t open the program. Just stand there.”
There is a presence to that flag-draped coffin. Even though you obviously know your loved one has vacated their body, and that only empty flesh remains, the coffin represents a life lived fully and well. It speaks to how one human being can break free of the boundaries we all feel we have and step boldly onto the world stage, confident that they can make a difference. It also represents grief and the deep well of loss when someone who was here now isn’t. When George W. Bush walked back to his seat after his eulogy and touched the coffin, I wondered if all of that was rising up inside him — the magnitude of his father’s life, and also the imprint he left as a father upon a son’s soul.
President Bush’s service had some of the finest eulogies I’ve ever heard. Jon Meacham’s should be studied in writing classes. It soared, and then dipped into quiet, personal moments. Alan Simpson offered the humor that every memorial service needs, to balance out the tears. And George W. Bush — holding on so tightly to his emotions only to surrender to them at the end — reminded us that behind fame and public accolades is the tenderness of being human.
It’s a powerful thing to watch people grieve. It forces us to slow down, take stock of our lives, think about how we live and who we love. For a day, maybe two, we didn’t think so much about Donald Trump and the wreckage of his administration. We shifted onto another plane, one infused with mystery and faith and questions that have no answers, at least not on this side of death’s portal. Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll remember how Wednesday felt and try to recapture some of that in the days and months ahead, when the world is too much with us.