Father Tony

How to bury Daddy.

Filed By Father Tony | October 09, 2008 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: funeral services, LGBT families

Evening Father T-

I find myself in the position of wrangling with a Baptist preacher regarding my Father's funeral service. My position being as dear old Daddy was devoutly agnostic there ought to be some latitude there, however I am riding a fine line in that I feel that his brother and sister deserve input into the proceedings as well, and by golly they want some preaching going on. I myself would be fairly put out if I have no voice whatsoever if I were in their position. That said, he's not giving me a hard time about Ramsey Lewis and Dave Brubeck being played in his church, so I guess I ought to be slightly more gracious. Sorry, I digress- loads.

It is the wish of said Reverend, and his remaining siblings that some passage or another of scripture be read. My general practice is to try and be inclusive of all religion, as a devout agnostic myself, thus my quandary. And in a general sense I feel it's probably only right as the church in question was founded back in 1760 something by my great great (however many of those require inserting) grandfather, so it would be somewhat tasteless and insulting not to include some passage or another I guess. I have no earthly clue as to what might be an appropriate reading. This man didn't know him, and yours truly has not made a practice of reading the bible in a number of decades. And while I am sure he is a lovely and sincere fellow, I think the concept of a free spirit stuck in a square box is counter to his general dogma..

Any guidance in this matter? I assume at some point you were faced with funeral proceeding for someone you knew not at all as a parishioner.

My apologies for bothering you with this, but oddly enough as we've never met- I genuinely respect your opinion, and a number of people I care very deeply for are terribly fond of you, which is enough for me.

Fondest regards,

Dear Cecilia,

Nothing brings out the true colors of family members like the planning of a funeral for someone who has not left written instructions. And I really do mean written. Aunt Jane cannot show up at the planning session and proclaim that daddy always said he wanted to be carried out to the tune of "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story sung by Marni Nixon. If daddy didn't specify that in writing, daddy's musical preferences are anyone's guess.

When my own father died, a sibling came forward with some outrageous claims. "Dad said I could have his stamp collection." And, "Dad said I could have all his tools." And, "Dad said I could have the house." The fact of the matter was that daddy had a will that stated clearly his desire that the entire estate be split evenly among his sons, and that I would be the executor. What my siblings soon discovered was that daddy's annuity and certain other bonds were in my name and were not considered part of the estate. Even though I was not obliged to do so, I told them that I would, over time, split the proceeds with them equally if they would just shut up and stop acting like money-grubbing brats. Amazing how they fell in line. I also said, at one point "Well Dad told me that he wanted to be buried in a lacy pink bra and panties, so here's the deal, if you all shut up, I won't go to Victoria's Secret to pick out his eternal outfit, get it?" I then went the extra distance and let them have the stamps and the tools, but I sold the house and divided the proceeds. It was not a pleasant experience and my partner learned a lot about the personality of my family that he had not before realized.

Funerals are unfortunately held at a time of emotional turbulence. We tend to forget that the only one who is not an emotional wreck is the deceased. He is also the only one not really in attendance at whatever service is concocted. We also tend to forget that, when we make an effort to please everyone concerned about the funeral, we end up with a hideous product designed by a committee. But you know what? Over several years of doing funerals, I began to think that maybe they really ought to be just as messy as our lives are. There ought to be tears, laughter, screaming, conniving, arguing and all sorts of bad taste and casseroles.

A word about the Baptist preacher. He ought to back off. The preacher/priest has control over what is acceptable content for a service in his church, but he ought to have no control in the proceedings beyond that. Tell him he is out of line, and that he ought to honor the wishes of the family provided they are not out of line with what is acceptable in his church.

What I cannot determine from your letter is your position of authority in this matter. As the man's daughter, you trump daddy's brothers and sisters.

Please keep in mind that what happens at the critical times in our lives, such as funerals and weddings, stays in our memory vividly and forever. For this reason, take the highest road you can handle. Give in to as many demands as you can swallow. Set the highest standard for your own gracious behavior. Let others "act out" while you remain calm and centered. Focus on the fact that the funeral ritual is really a communal expression that does not impact your personal relationship with your father. Know that as time goes by, you will have better memories for having done this, and someday, should you meet up with your father again, he will thank you, just as I am sure my father will someday thank me for having him buried not in a suit (or bra/panties!), but in his favorite shirt, a garish thing with a repeating print pattern of Schlitz beer cans, eagles and American flags.

Regarding the more serious issue involving Scripture readings and spiritual commentary over the remains of someone who really wasn't into it, I gave up clinging to logic in this area after a few years in the ministry. Every week I sent off confirmed atheists and agnostics to the tune of hymns and sermons glorifying a god that they were quite happy to do without. What can be said about this? You almost have to shrug and bear it. Then, you need to go home and write out a very specific will for yourself and bring it to a good lawyer. My partner and I shelled out several hundred dollars for exactly that. We are now reasonably sure that neither his family nor mine will be able to interfere with our plan to be cremated and strewn in the Central Park ramble, under the dick dock in Provincetown, on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, under our favorite bench on Broadway, on Ste. Catherine Street in Montreal, etc. etc. So it is written, so shall it be done. And if our wishes are not honored, so what? We will be dust, barely worth the sneeze we will cause when we laugh from the other side.

Devotedly yours,
Father Tony

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SammySeattle | October 9, 2008 2:48 PM

My family last year was faced with a similar dilemma, Dad was agnostic, Mom is devoutly Catholic. We had a Catholic mass as Dad had said he didn't care one way or the other. Mom solved our dilemma rather graciously knowing that two of the four kids are agnostic as well. We each chose a reading that most reminded us of Dad. I chose 1 Corintians 13 as it speaks of love and above all Dad had love for his family. I really don't remember what the other three chose, that's how these things work. In the end we remember the person more than the ceremony. I'd suggest letting the sister and brother each choose something to be said. The one thing I remember Dad saying about his funeral was that he didn't care what we did as the funeral was for us not for him. He was right.
Condolences to you and your family.

Father Tony, you are a wise and gentle man.

Cecelia, please accept my condolences. I cannot imagine what you are going through.

A dear friend committed suicide this summer. It was the worst thing ever. The deceased partner was not out to his family and didn't want to be out to his family. The surviving partner had met the family twice in 14 years at the deceased partner's request. Only God knows why. The deceased partner was an amazing intensely creative person born into a very southern rural Baptist/Assemblies of God family, came out, and was an atheist for 30 years.

Of course, everything was a big ugly secret, so the family didn't know any of this, and insisted on an evangelical funeral with an alter call. An alter call! It was so Six Feet under. The whole thing was surreal. We were all stunned by the death, and then the funeral was just wierd.

The family was lovely to the friends, and brutal to the surviving partner, blaming him for the suicide, and more. It was awful to witness. The partner totally took the high road, did the right thing, paid for everything and much more, and has no regrets.

As usual Fr. Tony, you are right. Taking the high road and keeping calm are the best path. My parochial school roots invoked John 14:1 over and over that weekend. It was the only way any of us made it through. Thank you, Father Tony. Beautiful post.

My dad died in June and it was so heartening to know our family was all in accord with my father's wishes. No embalming, he wanted cremation. No religious service, he was agnostic. No funeral service as such, just my mom, me, my two brothers, and my sister-in-law and her son (from China). One of my brother came to the funeral home with his guitar. My dad was dressed nicely in a suit, lying on a gurney with a blanket over him. I tucked my father's day card under his hand. We sang his favorite songs, 2 renditions of "Scotch and Soda" and "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain". We also sang Gogelberg's "Leader of the Band". We told stories of our love for him, said our good-byes. No obituary. Just a beautiful leave-taking for a man who was wonderful to us.

Funerals are bad enough. Throw in a squabbling family (all to common!) and it quickly turns from bad dream to nightmare.