My brother and sister and I went to Uncle Fred’s funeral last week and sat in my father’s pew.
We didn’t grow up with Victorian era Church of England assigned seating. We grew up with women on the left and men on the right, everybody singing four-part a cappella harmony. You don’t need a piano to sing well, but you do need someone to be at least vaguely in charge to keep everyone starting and ending at about the same time, and thus were born song leaders.
Song leaders are men who can carry a tune and know the difference between 3/4 and 4/4 time, and they take turns holding a microphone during the service and being the voice everyone can follow. At least when I was young, there were maybe 5 or 6 of them at any one time, and they all sat in the same section and passed the mic around. My father was a leader long before I was born, and all my childhood memories of church are infused with his voice.
So we went to the funeral, my brother and sister and I, and stood with all the nieces and nephews to be ushered in. We didn’t choose our place in line, just went where we were pointed.
And when we’d settled in, my sister pointed to the bench in front of us. I looked, and it took me a beat to parse what I was seeing.
That’s not a holder for a communion cup. It’s the holster for the microphone. We were sitting in Dad’s seat.
I imagine that the mic is wireless these days. When I was a little girl and went to sit with my father, the cord coiled around under the benches, black and heavy and not-to-be-played-with. But this day, there was no microphone there in the pew with us. Funerals are different. At funerals, there’s a group that sings (or leads the singing) and they sit in the back, all together.
My father was often the leader there, too. His contracting business allowed him a flexible schedule and he could go to all the funerals, so he did. I was his little shadow, and attended a hundred funerals by the time I was ten. I didn’t realize this wasn’t a standard experience until I moved away and met college freshman who had never been to a funeral, ever.
Every once in a while someone learns this about me and seems horrified. But it wasn’t horrifying. It was just the way things were. I’ve been grateful for it, even. I know what to do at a funeral, and I’ve known since I was small. You show up. That’s the most important part, the presence. Then you try to listen more than you talk (this is very hard for me), because if you read the book of Job, you’ll see that his friends didn’t get into trouble until they opened their mouths. People always wonder what to say, but in my experience it doesn’t much matter what you say if you manage not to be outright offensive. It mostly just matters that you’re there.
These are some of the legacies of my father. That I know how to show up. That I grew up so immersed in harmony that I can’t listen to anything, from a modern pop song to a Gregorian chant, without singing alto.
There are more, to be sure. But those were the ones on my heart that day, as I sat in Dad’s seat and missed his voice.