A Farewell to Gene

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A plain, cedar box. Unfinished, without attempt to ease the transition from faintly glowing mauve to blond. No sculpted lid, no shining metal handles. A box with a few ropes attached for carrying, a box just deep enough to hold a body, and not an inch more.

 

Today we said farewell to Gene Speichinger. Last night’s vigil was supposed to begin with a rosary at 4:30 and end with a prayer service at 6 p.m. But so many people came to pay their respects to his family that the center aisle was still full at 6:15, when the funeral director finally asked everyone to take their seats. The carefully-laid plans for the evening morphed into something much less structured and far more beautiful. This morning, at the Mass of Resurrection, the crowd was around 650. Afterward, every table in the parish hall was set up for the luncheon, plus a couple dozen tables I’d never seen before—on the stage, in the low addition on the west side, behind the dessert tables, tucked into corners, in front of the outside doors.

 

My first, very catchy, thought is: “If you have to go, this is the way to do it.” But Gene’s life, and his death, make it perfectly clear to me that those words express exactly the wrong attitude. Grief has nothing to do with the person departing, and everything to do with how we react to it. We’re all going to miss Gene, in varying ways and to varying degrees. But there is beauty in this process, too.

 

The last four days have been such an inspiration to me. I wrote a simple story on Thursday, which Christian forwarded to the Knights of Columbus, and for the next twenty-four hours we watched as the total hits on this blog skyrocketed into uncharted territory—by a factor of three. Not because of me, not because I’m a spectacular writer, but because of who this man was, and how many lives he touched. Deeply touched. As the process of leavetaking has unfolded, I’ve come to realize that of everyone who knew him, I knew him least. Our connection with him was so small—connection at a single point, Julianna—and the web of his influence spread so infinitely, not just away from us, but to a height and depth that I couldn’t have imagined.

 

When a man like that dies in his sleep, how can we feel anything but deep, profound gratitude on his behalf? We can’t. It’s us we’re grieving for. For what we’ve lost. Not for him.

 

This is the way death should be; this is what we should aspire to, what we should live our lives pointing toward. Yes, you read that right: we should live our lives focused on our death. To the multitudes who squirm at that idea, who think we shouldn’t talk about death with our kids, I say: It’s not morbid to try to live so that death becomes a beautiful thing. It’s morbid to make death into the enemy—to refuse to talk about it, to turn it into a spectre wearing a black cloak and carrying a scythe. You can stick your head in the sand, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re all going to die—you, me, our kids, our grandkids. We don’t get to choose the manner or the time of our death, but we can choose how we arrive there. Wouldn’t we all like to have 650 people at our funeral? Wouldn’t we all like to have made that kind of difference in the world?

 

Christian and I took the kids this morning. Bringing them seemed the only fitting tribute to this man, for what he gave to us. As always, Julianna, the point of connection, was far too young to have any idea what was going on. But Alex…well, his first funeral may well be the most beautiful one he ever attends—free from grief, able to see the celebration for what it truly is. A few years from now, he won’t have any idea who Gene was, and he probably won’t have any memory of the Mass. But he’s always going to connect funerals with scores of people, with the Knights’ honor guard, with the sound of an entire church lifting its collective voice in song. And if that’s how he begins to understand death, then he’s getting a big, big head start on the rest of us.

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