By Fr. G. Corwin Stoppel
I appreciate Meyer Wolfsheim, a gangster in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” loosely based on Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, who fixed baseball’s 1919 World Series.
Twice in the novel Wolfsheim is asked if he will attend his protégé Gatsby’s funeral. Both times he says no, he prefers to honor friends while they’re alive.
Funerals have always been part of our human experience. Archaeologists years ago opened a grave of our earliest ancestors and discovered a bouquet of wildflowers on top of the shroud, a clear indication that grief and loss of a fellow community member was part of their tradition.
Funerals give us an opportunity to say our goodbyes and have a sense of closure, whatever that means.
At the same time, I appreciate Wolfheim’s philosophy: far better to respect people while they’re alive than send flowers or praise they will not enjoy.
Sometimes at a funeral visitations we think of our missed opportunities to write a letter, send a message, telephone or do something while the person was still living. We can always do it tomorrow, we may have rationalized. No more.
All of which opens the door for that well-meaning, generally useless phrase “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” After every natural disaster, mass shooting or other tragedy, politicians are among the first to use it.
For years grief-stricken survivors politely took it on the chin and said thank you. Now a few are speaking the truth: that bland sentiment is so close to being an insult it is infuriating.
The best way to honor victims is do something positive before such tragedies happen again. For example, two decades have passed since the first mass school shooting. We heard all the “thoughts and prayers” prattle at the time, but what’s been accomplished since then?
The mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent. We can extend physical life for a long time but not perpetuity. The day is coming when we will fall off our perch and be found on the bottom of the cage too.
If we are going to say or do something that has value to a loved one, friend, or acquaintance, this is the day to do so.
If your neighbor has a nice garden, tell them while you can enjoy it, not while you’re at the buffet table waiting for a ham bun and potato salad. If you admire your friend’s taste in clothing, ability to host a nice party or anything tell him or her while they can hear it; not when you’re looking down into the coffin.
Wolfsheim was right: let us honor our friends while they are still alive.