TRUE STORIES — Grief at a distance
After a funeral service at Friskel’s in Frontenac twenty-five or so years back, Gus Bosetti stopped me as I was passing and said, “Say, J.T., that’s sure a good looking brown suit you’re wearing.”
“Yeah,” he smiled. “I used to have one that looked a lot like it.”
“Did you donate it to St. Mary’s Goodwill by any chance?”
“Well Gus, this is it.”
On Tuesday Linda opened the newspaper, let out a painful groan and said, “Oh no … Gus Bosetti died.”
After sharing a melancholy hug as we reflected on losing still another Frontenac elder, it wasn’t long before I recalled the laughter Gus and I shared after the exchange above — followed by flashbacks of his always smiling face around town growing up in the Republic.
I read his obituary aloud to Linda at our kitchen table. It listed his family history, time served in WWII, employment at Boeing and Green Giant, American Legion leadership, and lots of community service. “Gus was a kind hearted, caring man who was a friend to all in the Frontenac community and surrounding area,” it read. “He will be deeply missed.”
It also listed a statement — some form of which has necessarily come to be all too common in obituaries in these days of COVID-19 and social distancing: “A private mass was held on Monday, December 14, 2020 at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.”
No rosary. No pictures. No receiving line at the visitation. No hugs. No small town funeral. (True, there was a Mass but it was private - limited to family and pallbearers because of COVID-19). No Altar Society lunch for all in attendance who traveled out to the cemetery beyond the water tower to hear taps and a 21-gun salute followed by the ritual folding and presentation of the flag.
Which is to say, Linda and I didn’t get to pay our proper respects; to take part in the ritual.
It’s not the first. The pandemic has cut us off from the process seven or eight times since last March (one being premier educator and theatre director, Greg Shaw, whose obituary was published alongside Gus Bosetti’s).
Mortician and essayist Thomas Lynch has written extensively on death and dying, most recently about the consequences of the coronavirus on grieving. Lynch is not only an excellent essayist, he’s also a poet of some renown. While in Pittsburg to visit his friend, PSU English professor, Mike Heffernan, back in 1983, he gave a stirring poetry reading at the White Buffalo Café, which Linda and I co-owned with Don Buche.
Lynch recently wrote the following in the Atlantic magazine, “By getting the dead where they need to go—to ground or fire, tomb or sea, whatever abyss we consign them to—the living get where they need to be: to the edge of a life we will live without them. Such are the dual-purpose dynamics of a good funeral.”
That’s it for me. I need to witness — take part in the vigil and ritual — not only to honor the dead person but also to ground me. To hold on to other survivors as I again come to grips with the reality, as Thomas Merton put it, that “we are all hanging on by a hair.”
For a year or so after I retired from Pitt State I occasionally donned my dark suit and worked with the funeral crew at Bath-Naylor Funeral Home, handing out funeral cards, directing people to the right room, pointing out the sign-in book, moving flowers and driving family members and pall bearers to church, cemetery and back. I also witnessed a lot funeral services by a variety of celebrants and eulogists.
One in particular — a standing room only service held at the funeral home — was so deeply touching and real, and encompassed so much of “the dual purpose dynamics of a good funeral,” that it moved me to write the following prose poem when I got back home.
"At one point the whole entryway was a loud, intoxicating mix of conversation, cologne, perfume, reefer and beer; suits, white shirts and neckties to beer shirts, cutoffs and flip-flops. Bankers, roofers, plumbers, teachers, carpenters, secretaries, bikers, janitors, and nurses (most all of them inked) came teary-eyed or full of false bravado to hug and hear in his eulogy about how Duke never met a stranger and once got Tiffany out of jail so she could be with her kids on Christmas. At the end, I helped carry flowers and plants to his daughter’s truck, roll his casket back behind the partition, and gather up the visitor sign-in book. Some of the signatures were cursive, some printed. Several signed one name only: Braxton, Ike, Chapi, Jeremiah, Mad Dog, Digger. One just a squiggly line that drifted lazily over half the page before angling sharply to the bottom corner, like a dove shot out of the blue Kansas sky."
J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or email@example.com