Reflections on a President's Funeral

This morning President Ford's funeral was held at the National (Episcopal) Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It stirred within me a few different reactions.

First, patriotism. From the well-dressed soldiers to the Secret Service's fancy, black suburbans with their slick, flickering police-style lights, the images of our nation's wealth and power are intoxicating. Knowing that the young faces in the Armed Forces Chorale are willing to die to protect our way of life is moving. And the line-up of people eulogizing President Ford's character and political sacrifice for the good of our country provides us with lessons in the best of humanity. And yet to whom much is given, much is expected. I have squandered most (if not all) of the moral and cultural capital that I inherited. I believe that our nation, especially under the leadership of President Bush, has done the same. But he is not alone in shouldering the blame. My generation is a selfish one, and our sins will fall on our heads and the heads of our children. To spend hundreds of billions on a war in Iraq while we all but ignore pogroms like Darfur is contemptible. To sustain the ever-widening gap between our rich and our poor with regard to health care, education, and prisons is unconscionable. We shower our children with expensive and wasteful high-tech gifts while our neighbors within our borders (think inner city) and beyond (think Mexico) go without the basics. Our nation's most vocally pious fight for the unborn while the already-born are largely neglected. And so the welling up of my patriotism subsides as I remember that so many other nations have it better in so many other ways. For me, it's not so much about being an American as it is about being an earthling, interconnected with and interdependent on all other humans and nonhumans on this precious, fragile planet.

Second, faith. Somehow, despite all of my recent doubts about God and Christianity, I am still proud to be an Episcopalian. Attending that funeral service (via TV) in the National Cathedral with the choirs and organ and robes and the majesty of that edifice, I felt drawn back to the church. If nothing else, I miss the daily (morning & evening) rituals of bowing in humility before One greater than I; I miss remembering those most dear to me regularly in prayer; and I miss the stories and songs that seem to fill the gaps in life. But how do I worship a God I'm not sure exists? I was raised to believe that "certainty" is the core of faith, but I am neither certain nor do I trust the so-called loving and sovereign God of my youth. "He" has let me down one too many times.

Finally, culture. Perhaps it is only a lingering nostalgia for the aristocratic lifestyle of suburban America, but the contrast between the dignified manners of the well-dressed attendees of the funeral and the crassness of the men on my prison yard is painfully palpable. I easily tire of the loud, obnoxious cacophony that surrounds me here. Where is civility and restraint? I am disappointed by so many able-bodied men who sit and stare into space for years on end. Where is ambition and industriousness? I hate to open my eyes in the morning to the drab and dreary surroundings. I long for beauty, femininity, the laughter of children, and the nuzzlings of a dog. It is true that I miss the luxuries of my laptop and my Land Rover and flying and scuba diving and sailing and surfing and traveling around the globe, but in light of global issues like climate change and overpopulation, I believe we've reached a time when big sacrifices need to be made by all of the world's "haves" on behalf of the "have nots." One day, I hope to live in just such a humble yet beautiful way free from the waste of prison and free to offer a wider range of my gifts to the world's poor.

Postscript (January 3, 2007):

This afternoon President Gerald R. Ford was laid to rest at his presidential library in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Here was a man who did not seek the highest office in our country; it was thrust upon him, and he fulfilled his duties with honor and dignity. His funerals (in Washington D.C. and Grand Rapids) and burial service were filled with the most meaningful rituals and metaphors known to American culture. No doubt some of it looked strange to those in different cultures, as it should, but the ceremony wasn't for them. It was our grand and protracted way of saying thank you for a good, upright, and (inter)nationally influential life.

I wonder how my funeral will look. I never served in the military or in any political office, so there will be no 21-gun salute, no soldiers in uniform, no one playing "Taps." I disgraced myself by hurting the very ones I swore to protect, so the ignominy will surely drive many away. My mother, if she were still alive, would surely sing my praises. So would my father and brother.

The script of my life is only half written (or so I hope). Perhaps I can yet retrieve some honor to hand on to those who come after me, to inspire them, and to remind them that everyone deserves another chance. Even from the dust the brave can arise.

© 2008 Jon Andreas. All rights reserved. Written 2 January 2007