The other day outside a convenience store, I ran into a neighbor I hadn’t seen in a while. I stopped to say hi and otherwise pretend I was a decently sociable human being. If you recall last week, there were some windy and chilly days. Well, it’s north shore in spring, so wind and cold are the norm. I recall one May wearing a parka and choppers to water my new grass (lawn). It was like that outside the store talking to someone buffered from the cold by their car. After a few minutes the cold got me. To keep my ears from freezing I flipped up my hood.
Soon as I did so, I realized my possibly fatal mistake. I was outside a convenience store wearing a hood and arguably looking suspicious to someone. Sensing mortal danger, I was tempted to throw up both hands in surrender and drop to my knees or facedown on the pavement to save my life, in case someone felt they had to stand their ground and remove a threatening hooded figure. For me, getting on the ground is one thing. I can get down. How I get up again is a different matter because I have to go about it in just-so order to balance discomfort between bad hip on one side and balky knee on the other. It’s no small matter for me to hit the dirt. Doing so requires a plan, something I never had to bother with when younger.

I was thinking how quickly youth had gone and how speedily my age could come to an end in a parking lot for looking suspect. It was an eye-opening moment where person and universe stand eye to eye seeing who will blink first. I blinked. I thought, how silly of me to suddenly turn fearful and harbor foolish worries when I had no cause. Hooded I was, but I lacked the necessary Skittles to complete the ensemble, so technically I was OK, good to go. It was a great reprieve, I’ll tell you, feeling my life return, and a much greater relief that I didn’t have to hit the ground to save myself. Not only is the ground further away than I remember it as a child, it’s a lot colder, wetter, and dirtier than it used to be. I can’t imagine why I once thought playing down there in all that mess was in any way fun. Kids—who can explain them?

My little flirt-with-death experience did one thing, though. It reminded me of a topic. Because unlike the vast majority of my cries in the wilderness, a recent one on funerals got some response. It makes sense. Death touches and faces all. How to conduct ourselves in the face of death is common ground. But I was by no means prepared for comment on the article. I was speechless. People who know me will readily volunteer that “at a loss for words” is not a characteristic others generally apply to me. Even the more tolerant of those having to endure me will often find themselves snapping “shut up and sit down” if I happen to slip into restaurant debate on freedom of expression or separation of church and state. I have, on occasion, been known to get a little “het up” in discussion. This has seldom if ever been a problem in places empty of others. I’m aware of the sometimes scramble for the rear exit when I’m entering by the front. I’m good with that. It saves everyone much grief and angst. (I consider life in Hovland where I seldom see others to be a sort of public service. Remember that.)

But the death/funeral topic is one facing all, whether from incidental violence over a hood (perhaps had the victim worn a parka he might have been spared) or the internal violence of a malignancy. One way or another, it’s our fate. None escape. I had some friends (now gone) who took a practical, no-fuss approach to their eventual demise. They wished to be what I term “burned and bagged.” One of them would have preferred no service, either, but once he was gone the consensus was “to heck with his wishes.” Did we disregard his wish? Yes. But were we motivated by disrespect? No. The living need to work through a process of some type adjusting to loss of friend or loved one.

I was barely adult when my grandfather died. Before that, I had no real “view” of funerals or death other than slight approval, because as an altar boy I might get a small tip or be allowed to the hall after internment where there’d be cake to eat and wine to sneak. At age eleven I took pleasures where found. A decade later I had a tiny bit more maturity and saw a millimeter further than before. I saw how frantically busy Grandmother was helping serve plate after plate of steaming kielbasa in the rented hall where flocks of “strangers” gorged on Polack plenty. It hit me that her being busy was a way of addressing her life’s new reality and of coping. It didn’t seem to awfully bad, either, that the freeloaders who staggered away overflowing had in their selfish way contributed something by simply being there consuming multi courses in memory of “Old Joe.”

We can call it silly and brush it aside, but ritual has a role in human activity. We perform common acts in recognition of common roots. Grief and loss are not limited to certain groups, say Armenian, Arab, and Asian. The feelings and human needs are much the same group to group, despite how ritual observance varies. In the U.S. funerals modernized into celebrations of the deceased’s life. I understand that and am OK with it. But I’m a traditionalist, too. I’ll never forget the slow walk behind uniformed men of the Polish Navy Club carrying the casket to the family plot at Resurrection Cemetery. It was a trial, difficult for Grandmother to make. I remember her unsteady feet in cumbersome black shoes as she struggled, sons at her side helping her stay up. For the final walk she was not alone in her grief. We were all of us there, together, in support. The tradition of a long, slow walk to the grave site is as much opportunity to love and sustain one another as it is mere ritual.