Scenes from a Funeral Day
My father in law's funeral brought together the story of an everyman hero who had all the right stuff, and left an incredible human legacy. At a time when people are fixated on superheroes and icons, Asa's story is about what matters most.
His health had been declining for a year or longer, and in the last weeks it became clear that his body would give out. Still, nothing can prepare you for the sense of loss when someone so central in all of our lives was here one day, and then he is just gone. It was in this state of grief, a kind of low grade shock, that our family worked through the arrangements that brought us to this day, the funeral mass for Asa, patriarch of the Whetstone family, beloved husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather—a kind, generous, soft spoken man, an accomplished man, a solid member of the church and community, as fine a human as I have known.
The immediate family, some 23 of us, rolled his plain wood casket down the church aisle while Asa’s fellow choir members sang Amazing Grace. This tune that we’ve heard a million times before had a new kind of emotional power in that moment, an austere narrative of being lost and then finding salvation. It is a testament to faith in general, and to Asa’s deep faith in particular. There was a giant rock holding up the altar, the boulder that Asa’s friend Monsignor Dwyer put there when he founded this church sixty years ago. That rock is an organic anchor in the middle of this airy mid century modernist theatre-in-the-round church. It was trucked down to the valley from the Sierra Nevada foothills. Build your alter on a rock of ages!
Presiding over the rock altar was Father Moroney, Asa’s friend and handpicked celebrant, whose Irish brogue lent an ancient air to the proceedings. We found out later he was a grumpy old man, muttering impatient things under his breath to the readers and family members, inexplicably trying to hurry things along. The good father hit the highlights from Asa’s biography and told of his able fundraising assistance decades earlier—how they exceeded the target dollar amount set forth by the diocese office. Further along in the mass he added a non sequitur afterthought, citing the exact dollar figure raised. Financial Accounting must be accurate even on such a solemn day.
The heart of the mass wasn't the communion, as an observer of things catholic might assume. It was the five-way eulogy delivered by Asa’s children, four daughters and one son: two technology execs (following in their old man’s footsteps), a school teacher, a caterer, and one who does so much more than run a sandwich shop. The eulogy was warm, thoughtful and funny, expressing a deep love for their dad. There was a chronology of his 86-year life, recounting humble origins: son of a diner cook, born in the worst year of the Great Depression, his parents’ turbulent marriage, moving from place to place—15 apartments all across downtown Sacramento. And through it all, an innate goodness and trueness propelled this red headed kid up and out of that world.
The biography read like a real life fairy tale: his lifelong connection with his high school, Christian Brothers; how he met his wife catching eyes through the library bookshelves at Sacramento State; the year he played semi-pro football; and his tour of duty in the Army, stationed up in Alaska.
The kids told of their dad’s deep gratitude for small things, especially good, fresh-baked bread, the way he articulated his observations about food, the soliloquies of someone who cared and who paid scientific attention to details. One daughter started off claiming that she was his favorite. That wit was a branch of Asa’s own wit, and so he would have appreciated it. Another daughter told of their regular lunches together. It was mentioned that he placed importance on public speaking (sharing your story and your heart)...all of his kids honored that value on this day with their words. Everyone was trying to fill a massive hole with mere words—even the best words are inadequate for this task.
The mass concluded with two songs, sung for a man who sang in the church choir for decades, who learned to play piano in his 50s. The twelve grandkids started in on the Leonard Cohen ballad Hallelujah. But the church pianist was out of sync and a quick thinking aunt stepped in with an awkward but necessary restart. These cousins have been singing together their whole lives, and their song came directly from the love of music that defined their grandfather. Then Asa’s son, an accomplished folk singer and songwriter, sang a song he wrote for his dad. It was an ethereal, haunting chant, with a celtic, medieval quality. In it, the line “and love goes on, beyond the body’s time.”
So moving was this music and the procession out of the church, we found ourselves outside the front doors, hugging each other and weeping.
The church sits about a mile from the family home, a mile that has been walked, biked and driven thousands of times over sixty years. Today we followed that route back to a lunch reception at the ranch style home on Ambassador Drive that Asa and Sue bought in '65, the place on the banks of the American River where they raised five children, where life was given and nurtured. Back then, he was a rocket engineer in the age of new frontiers. He was an everyman hero in his horn rimmed glasses, dark suits, thin neckties, posing in those yellow tinted vintage photographs, surrounded by his all-American brood, beside a tanned, beautiful wife who looked a bit like Jane Fonda in her prime. The photographs displayed in the yard were an embarrassment of riches, documentary evidence of a life so well lived.
The yard was full of people, like countless events there over the decades—the birthdays and weddings and anniversaries, a yard that is more than just a yard—a central point for our family, where little grandkids crawled on the green lawn, where easter eggs were hidden, this yard that was so often strung with party lights, where bands played and toasts were made. Today there were no toasts. No microphone. The mass had been enough, had been so perfectly articulate and beautiful. This was a time to break bread and visit.
The sun shone, and people from all circles mingled. You don’t realize how much relies on just one man until you see the lives he touched, and the connections he made—all in one place. There were long lost souls from the high school years, and relatives who flew in from out of town. Unfortunately, it takes a funeral to bring people together like this. People lined up at the buffet tables, eating the salads made by Asa’s daughter, the caterer—the salads Asa loved so much.
As the late afternoon wore on, the yard slowly emptied out, until there was just one table with maybe ten of us sitting there, lingering, not wanting this gathering to end. On what had been a sunny day, the sky began to darken, and the air grew heavy and breezy...and out toward the river a luminous, otherworldly orange strip of sunset shone beneath dark gray clouds. Eventually, some drops came down, at first easy and then accelerating to a harder rain. We ran for the house, pulling photo panels off the walls. We watched lightning bolts jag across the purple sky, and great crashes of thunder, a few times shaking the whole house. This was a midwestern type of thunderstorm, not the kind you get out here in California.
We who remained shared a similar thought, that this was somehow appropriate, that this might be Asa adding his voice to the day from on high. In a most human way, we look for signs and omens.
A lot of times the really sublime moments happen not when they are “supposed” to happen, not the things in the official agenda—but when no one’s looking. At the end of this emotional event I saw such a thing through the windows—a daughter and a grandson walking out into the rain storm, all the way to the far end of the long yard, arm in arm, letting the rain pelt their upturned faces, two figures way out in the gloaming, in spontaneous communion with sky and God. And that image remains indelible for me, a prayerful conclusion to this funeral day.
A prayer of peace for Asa, may his love and light be with us forever.
September 28, 2019