Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Widower's Friend

{William Bingham class=}
Funeral Service

It was a large funeral service with probably a couple hundred attendees, held in the formal hall of his life's honored profession, its walls draped with portraits of officers in academic gowns, and men wearing beards. The hall had been built to impress visitors and it did, but those who served for decades as fellows and officers found it very homelike and intimate. He was eighty-sixing. Yes, eighty-six and a revered friend of every doctor now in the room. Death had been sudden and unexpected if that is possible for anyone eighty-sixes. A dozen or more attendees had greeted him heartily at the opera a week earlier, others had gone to dinners and meetings of volunteers for favorite nonprofit activities where he was a lively presence. He was comfortably fixed, could have gone on that way for decades, at least it once seemed so.

He was a widower, well known to be keeping company with a widow who was also familiar to the crowd, as was her former husband who had been very well liked and respected. The two, widow and widower, had not remarried for whatever reason their circumstances demanded, possibly just reluctance to break formal ties with the past. The funeral arrangements, the caterer and all that fuss, had been taken over by his several adult children.

The first sign, a small one, of the younger generation's inexperience and uncertainty entering into a new role as heads of a large family, was to be noticed in the obituary. Surely written by the undertaker and re-written by the newspaper editor, the facts were supplied by his children. Somewhere in this information chain, all mention was omitted that he had the affectionate companionship for several years of our other good friend the widow, who quite possibly had expressed a desire to remain in the background. These are all nice people; they want to do right, and certainly had no wish to hurt anyone's feelings. The attendees at funerals learn their role with practice. When there is nothing to say, they have mostly learned ways of saying something gracious. But little about that role teaches much about being in the other role, of conducting the services, being the host, setting the tone. Particularly in a secular service with no pastor trained in the ceremonial details, one can be thoroughly adult without knowing the rules. Not even knowing if there are any rules. Each of a half dozen particular friends and notables came to the front of the room to give eulogies they had time to prepare. The music was perfect. The reception was exquisite. The attendees were often old friends from the same social circle; if they created any missteps it was to express delight in seeing each other, then remembering why they were there, and dropping back in momentary confusion. Of course, our friend who had died would have sincerely wanted everyone to have a good time at his party. Perhaps that wasn't entirely a perfect answer, but we were all friends of many decades, and it didn't matter, did it.

The caterer, sort of understanding the situations emerging in his trade, had addressed another issue by placing an empty serving stand, about four feet high where the widow/companion could stand by the door, greeting both her special friends and his. It was nice to have a place to put her pocketbook and her largely untouched drink and food. At first, this worked, but inevitably her group of friends entering the room ran out before he did, and his lifetime friends turned to chat with each other. In time, the large formal room was a cluster of his old friends, but with his formerly closest companion now standing uneasily alone at her position by the door, her pocketbook looking rather forlorn as the waiters quickly cleared other dishes away, with replacements declined. A glance across the room told what was on her mind; should she be the first to leave or the last? Momentarily she stayed on when a couple of young ladies stopped by to speak with her, and then the outcome suddenly became clear. If she stayed much longer she would be the only one there. She slipped out the door unnoticed and walked unsteadily down the long marble stairs. Alone, again.

Originally published: Sunday, October 30, 2011; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 02, 2019