I went to my Uncle Johnny's funeral the other day. We told stories and laughed. Uncle Johnny was not a religious man, but he had a strong connection to his Native American heritage. So, per his wishes, there was no preacher. There were no sad hymns. There were no come to Jesus fire and brimstone soliloquies to save souls. There was a Native Holy Man who sang songs of celebration, and of passing. His last song sent Uncle Johnny on his way into the spirit world of Native lore, where he would meet with his relatives who had gone before him. Johnny's mom and dad would be there to greet him. There in the afterlife, Uncle Johnny would finally be free of the pain and disease that had shackled him in his last years on this earth.
As I sat and listened to the songs, and to sons and nieces and life long friends tell their stories, I was strangely comforted. In my younger years, death was something I feared. It was an alien thing, a ravenous monster who burst from the darkness with slavering jaws and burning red eyes to take me away.
Well, I'm older now. Death is not the monster he used to be. Death has become my beloved grandmother, reaching from her deathbed to hug me one last time, her eyes bright, saying “There's my grandson.”
Death has become my dear mother, her body ravaged by cancer, pulling my future wife close and whispering to her, “Thank you for being there for my son.”
Death has become my grandfather, forgoing treatments that would only serve to keep him alive in extended care for a year or two at best, meeting his end on his own terms and his own time, hugging me with the little strength he had left and telling me he loved me in his paper thin voice.
And now here I am yet again in a small room, sitting on burnished pews and smelling old wood and plaster and the musty air of the thousands of memorials that came before this one. Death is here, but he has lost his sting. We laugh at the stories of the life that was. The Holy Man is singing his songs There is a casket and flowers and cards and photos, but Uncle Johnny, he's not here. He is laughing and dancing. He is hugging his mom and dad. He is feeling the sweet fall air on his face.
Just like my grandparents and my mom, Uncle Johnny is free. We mourn his passing but not his ending. Just like those that have gone before him, his life endures in the hearts and memories of those who love him. That is the true circle of life, this love that never ends.
So death will come, and he will get his due, but he is no longer the red eyed monster of my youth. He is now my grandfather, and my grandmother, and my mother. He is all my dear friends who have gone before me. He is Uncle Johnny.
One day, I will embrace death as the old and dear friend that he is and he will lead me where I need to go, and the circle will remain unbroken.