When I was 48 I was a pallbearer at my uncle’s funeral. It remains one of the most amazing things I have ever done. I have done many amazing things that I always hoped to do one day- marry a wonderful man, give birth, meet celebrities, take fabulous vacations- but being a pallbearer was one of those unexpected and unexpectedly amazing things that I never imagined I would do.
I cannot remember ever seeing a female pallbearer. It never once crossed my mind that I would be one. And yet, pallbearers have always touched my heart. In the midst of so much sorrow, vulnerability and pain, they are expected to be so unnaturally strong. I remember watching my husband and his cousins as young men carrying their grandfather’s casket across the uneven landscape of the cemetery. They struggled under the weight of their sadness not knowing at that young age what to do with it all. That image still moves me to tears. But I remember thinking at the time how lucky they were to carry the man who had a tremendous impact on their lives for the final time. Now here I was many years later faced with the same bittersweet gift.
It was oppressively hot the day we buried my uncle. Sweat ran down my back and my legs. I was nervous when the funeral director gathered us in the back room to give us direction. I sensed a sisterhood with my cousin, Yvonne, who was also asked to be a pallbearer. We had the same mixed up uneasiness and happiness to be members of the secret fraternity. It was odd. I wanted it to be perfect. I wanted to be as strong as my male cousins. I didn’t want to let anyone- my cousins, my uncle, my mother, my family- down.
When the service began, the enormity of the occasion settled me down. My uncle had been the much loved and much respected head of our very large family for the last thirty years. I knew him as the head of our family longer than I knew my own grandfather. He had silver hair, a straight back and high cheekbones. Even at 89 years old you could see that he had been a terribly handsome man. As a young girl, I romanticized him as a Renaissance man. He survived two kamikaze pilot attacks on his ship in WWII He was a full time cancer research scientist part time photographer, poet and philosopher. He was quiet and soft spoken, elegant and smart. I never saw him dressed in anything less casual than dress slacks and long sleeves no matter how hot and humid the day was and I loved him completely.
When we pulled the casket off the gurney, I noticed Yvonne’s arm muscles strain as we bore my uncle’s full weight. I glanced down at my arm and was surprised to see the full contour of my own muscle. I spread my legs a little farther apart to brace myself and I wondered what that image must look like- all my big male cousins in dark suits with their broad backs and flat shoes ahead of us with Yvonne and me in our black narrow dresses and high heels at the end. Were we bringing up the rear or tagging along behind? Did we appear to hold our own? How I hope we looked strong to my two teenage daughters.
While I was filled with sadness and worry and confusion, I was also euphoric. I felt strong and open and vulnerable and a part of something important. Having such a physical role in my uncle’s funeral gave me a sense of accomplishment and closure. When we settled the casket for the last time at the cemetery, and I placed my boutonniere alongside those of my male cousins I felt completely free to cry. And I did. Hard. I realized that perfect balance between strength and sorrow doesn’t belong to one gender or the other and I hoped I re-wrote that role for my girls. Being a pallbearer for my uncle was a tremendous honor and an amazing thing to be a part of.