Sunday, June 1, 2008

Funeral for a friend

Yesterday was Craig Olson's funeral. Dr. O. I arrived at 8am, when only the funeral director and his assistants were there. I took comfort in this "business end", though I only watched. It's been important to me--to the point that it even decided what funeral home I'd work at--that Craig's funeral be personal, not business at any level. When other teachers who were helping and the musicians arrived, I walked to the pictures set up in the front of the gymnasium and looked at parts of Dr. O I knew and parts that I did not know. I did not notice him, his ashes, in the center of the room--his urn insignificant against the flowers and the large photograph taken of him in Africa while he was in the Peace Corps.

I helped set up and test microphones, and then I helped set up the food. I told Stacy "I'm short on money but not on time", justifying why I hadn't brought anything. She said, "Time is more valuable." We set up the blue and yellow table cloths and napkins and platters of food (a diabetic nightmare and so unbelievably Lutheran I think Dr. O's soul was rolling). At 8:40ish the family arrived to spend their time privately with Dr. O.

At 9am, I walked through the pictures again, and the urn caught my eye. I wished that I had seen it earlier so I could spend some private time with it, even (sorry if this offends) open it up and look inside. I've never seen cremains before, and I knew that of all people Dr. O wouldn't mind. He'd say "Crack it open, check it out." A learning experience is a learning experience. But, of course, I didn't. I did take my semi-private time, though, walking up in front of everyone there, touching the top of the urn and saying a few words to Dr. O.

I saw many former students at the visitation, and I kept waiting for the throngs of people to arrive. Surely someone as influential as Dr. O, as life-changing for so many, would have thousands of people at his funeral. The gym would be packed to overflowing. The police needed for traffic regulation. Parking a nightmare. But as the funeral began at 11am, the chairs numbering 420, were not full. The bleachers, holding 618 to a side, were nearly empty. All in all, a few less than 500 people were there. A perfectly respectable showing, but where were all the people? With between 300-500 people in each graduating class for the last nine years I've taught, there should be at least 50 from each class, surely? He'd worked in PL for twenty-two years. Where were the crowds?

The funeral began with Pastor Ron, the spouse of a teacher and a friend of Dr. O's, who agreed to do a secular service to respect Craig's non-belief in organized religion. The ceremony was musical, with O Fortuna being sung, the school song played by a brass quintet, and the school concert choir performing a lovely song a capella. Letters staff members had written to Dr. O upon learning of his illness were read, and several people delivered eulogies, including Dr. O's best friend Andy, the former superintendent of our district, and a friend of Dr. O's from college. When each finished speaking they stepped away from the podium and hugged Mary, Dr. O's wife.

At the end of the service after we filed out (I'm pretty sure I went out of order. Oops.) and went to the food area. I talked with a few people, but did not speak with the family again. And, at a little after 1pm, I left.

The amazing thing that happened was that Craig came to his own funeral. He was there, and I have never felt the presence of someone deceased as strongly. I've thought that I have, but it's one of those things that when it happens you *really* know it. Craig was there and he was all around us. He will not leave that school--it is his legacy. He is in every classroom, in the hallways, in the auditorium, in the storage closets, in the furniture. He is in the lights, in the bleachers, and in the railings. It sounds trite and the more I try to clarify the more hokey it'll sound, so I won't. But when I was in that gym with Craig's family and friends, in the building that he created and shed blood, sweat, tears and time for, he may as well have been sitting in a chair there. He was not in the urn, he was everywhere.