Please Do Not Have Fun At Philip Gulley’s Funeral

Philip Gulley

Illustration by Ryan Snook

I was cleaning up my office recently and happened upon a notepad listing every funeral I’ve ever done. I conducted my first funeral at the age of 22, for my landlord’s dog, Laddie. My landlord was a mortician who had spent decades burying his friends in the small town where we lived, but was too grief-stricken to inter his own dog, so prevailed upon me to dig its grave in his garden. Then he asked me, rather shyly, if I might say a few words.

I had never liked the dog, who had bitten me twice in the short years of our association. But I spoke of the dog’s nobility as if he were Rin Tin Tin, and I mentioned how the world would be a sadder place with him gone. I also said I wasn’t sure how we would go on, but I knew we could because of Jesus. It wouldn’t be the last time I exaggerated someone’s virtues while giving a eulogy, which often has more lies per minute than a political speech.
While I don’t approve of lying, I’m not opposed to the well-crafted embellishment in the interest of consolation.

People know full well the shortcomings of their loved ones, but the eulogy is neither the time nor place to be reminded of them. That comes later, during the funeral dinner, when the stories are told, after the initial waves of grief have pulled back from the shore. I once heard a lawyer give a eulogy extolling the virtues of the deceased, only to relate, an hour later over ham and green beans, how the scoundrel had stiffed him $20,000 in legal fees. This surprised no one, since the dearly departed had something of a slippery reputation. But we were glad the lawyer hadn’t mentioned it during the eulogy, for fear it would start a trend and truth might start breaking out at funerals, which is the last thing anyone wants.

A good funeral is performance art, each person present playing a role. The corpse’s task is to appear healthy, so the mourners can comment positively on the deceased, which is their job. It is the task of the pastor to make it seem as if he were a close personal friend of the departed, whether or not they had ever met. I’ll let you in on a little ministerial secret—if the pastor quotes the Bible a lot and blabbers on and on about God, it’s likely he never knew the deceased. Another way of telling whether the pastor met the dead person is if he calls the individual by the wrong name.

It’s surprising how many people don’t go by their birth name. My wife is named Barbara, but everyone calls her Joan. She exercises a lot and eats healthy food, so she will likely outlive me, which means I won’t be around to tell the minister her real name. Then she’ll die and the pastor will stand up and talk about how everyone loved Barbara and how much they’ll miss her. I told her she should have “Joan” tattooed on her forehead just in case.
When I rented that apartment from the mortician years ago, I entertained the idea of becoming a funeral director, but I didn’t like being around dead people.

Plus, I sensed there wasn’t much of a future in it, what with the trend toward cremation and fewer folks having conventional services in funeral homes. We don’t even call them funerals anymore, we call them “celebrations of life” and hold them in backyards and bars. I detest the phrase “celebration of life” because it sounds like something you’re supposed to enjoy. It feels inappropriate to cry at a “celebration of life,” like you’re not getting with the program. It’s made worse when people say, “I don’t want anyone to cry at my funeral. I want it to be a party.”

Not me. I want people sprawled in the pews, bawling their eyes out when I die. I have a pastor friend I’ve asked to conduct my funeral when the time comes, and I have told him I want him collapsed on the floor, prostrate with grief. If someone comes to my funeral expecting a party, they’re going to be sorely disappointed. People in the old days used to employ professional mourners to cry at their funerals, which strikes me as the best idea ever, and I intend to hire a boatload of them.

With fewer people wanting the full-blown services of a funeral home, those who do are paying more for funerals than ever before. It costs nearly $10,000 to expire these days, and if you live in Indiana, you have to employ a mortician whether you want to or not. Why county coroners, whose salary we pay, can’t stare at a body, say “Yep, he’s a goner,” then issue a death certificate is beyond me. Instead, the funeral-home lobbyists cozied up to the legislators and got them to pass a law requiring they be hired for every death. I’m thinking of asking the state to insist every Hoosier buy books written by Quaker pastors.

While I’m no fan of the death trade, I’ve liked every mortician I’ve ever met. They have been, without exception, pleasant and capable. I’m not surprised the legislature greased the skids for them. It has occurred to me that undertakers might be nice to pastors because they hope we’ll recommend their services to our congregants. Though I have my preferences, I’m careful never to steer my fellow Quakers one way or the other. I do, however, suggest modest, inexpensive coffins, befitting our testimony of simplicity. Besides, the finest casket can’t salvage a dishonorable reputation, and those who have lived their lives with integrity have no need to bolster their legacy with a parting display of affluence.

Even though my first funeral was for a dog, I never anticipated the deep sense of loss that often accompanies the death of a pet. When I was a kid and a dog or cat died, I always went in search of a new dog or cat. The role of pet was more critical than the actor who filled it. That changed somewhere along the way, and now we grieve the loss of pets like we do the loss of humans. I’m not sure whether that’s healthy or not, but I do know it’s real and something I’ve experienced myself.

As I write this, I am looking out my window at the grave of our dog, Zipper, who resides alongside the peonies near our redbud tree. In the 14 years she lived with us, she had an unhealthy interest in death, scrutinizing and sniffing every carcass she happened upon. When someone in the household was ill, she appeared at their fevered bedside, practicing her own brand of medicine, which was to drape herself on top of our heads and lick our ears. I’m not sure what evolutionary need that served, but it was oddly comforting. I recall it whenever I’m sick, wishing she were still with us, dispensing her moistened cures.