I thought the line of slow-moving cars was a result of the ubiquitous campus summer road construction. Not until I was part of it did I realize a hearse was leading the way.
At least I was the last car in line, so I hadn’t been so gauche as to interrupt the procession of mourners. And rather than fume at the 15-mile-an-hour pace, I passed the time by thinking of my Uncle Al, who had died six days previously.
My unintentional participation in a stranger’s funeral procession was as close as I was going to get to a funeral cortege for my uncle. He’d always made it clear to his family that after his death he wanted no visitation, no funeral, no graveside service, no nothing. They honored his wishes.
As his siblings, including my mother, would say, “That’s Al.”
Once, in his younger days, he had remarked after a funeral for a relative: “This is stupid. If people wanted to see him, they should have visited before he died.”
My mother told me that she and her other brother had tried to explain to him what funerals really meant and who they were for. To remember and honor the deceased. To comfort those left behind. To say good-bye. Et cetera.
It didn’t matter what they said. Al was having none of it. He obviously never changed his mind.
So on the day I inadvertently joined a funeral procession, I sent a mental message to Uncle Al. “We needed a funeral,” I told him. “We needed to hug your wife and your kids. We needed to blink away tears. We needed to wish you Godspeed. We needed to tell some funny and sad and surprising stories at the lunch that would follow the graveside services.”
I really wanted to hear those stories. To hear about the boy who spent his school days staring out the window at the birds and squirrels. The young man who served in the Army during World War II. The uncle who always wore the same brown civil defense uniform to every family gathering he attended. The man who had an almost pathological hatred of hospitals. The boy whose sweetly odd decisions always prompted his brothers and sisters to shrug their shoulders and say: “That’s Al.”
As the hearse turned into Cedar Grove Cemetery and I sped on my way, I sent him one last message on behalf of all his relatives: “It’s not for you, Uncle Al. It’s for us.”
So Uncle Al, I hope you forgive this verboten memorial, since it really isn’t for you. It’s for all those you left behind, who are sad at your passing and in need of comfort. It’s for me.
Rest in peace.
Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.