Essay: The Parish Hall

May 27, 2020

Attending a funeral is never a comfortable experience. But it can be especially uncomfortable if you feel out of place.

Lake Effect contributor Jan Wilberg recently learned that attending a funeral is not about your own comfort but about bringing comfort to others. She recalls her experience attending a funeral on the Oneida reservation in her essay “The Parish Hall.”

Last fall, my friend's son passed away.

My friend and her family are Native American and the celebration of her son's life would be held at the parish hall on the Oneida reservation about two hours from where I live. I debated going. I didn't actually know her son, a grown man of many accomplishments. I just knew her. And, for a long time, I've been wary of funerals since so many friends have lost their adult children. You can be overwhelmed by the enormity of sorrow even if it is second-hand.

I decided I should go. Grieving people should look over their shoulders at their loved one's funeral and see a sea of people, every seat full. I've thought that for a long time, even when I've convinced myself to not go to funerals where I thought I wouldn't fit in. Going to a Native American celebration as a white person would be one of those times. Still, I felt compelled. So my plan was to go and sit in the back row, be inconspicuous but present, hug my friend, and drive home.

The day of the gathering was a bright September day, the kind that glows gold. The parish hall was on a two-lane road. Cars were parked lopsided on the gravel shoulder but I turned my truck into the parking lot to find a space. It was an immediate mistake.

Two rows of cars parked close together with no empty spaces and no exit. I tried turning around with no success. A woman walking past studied me and I felt large and ignorant, like anyone should have known better than to bring a truck into such a small place. Finally, I weaved the truck back to the road, parking on the shoulder next to the cemetery. That's what I did but what I wanted to do was to go home.

I have no business being here, I thought. No one will know if I leave now. This was my litany as I walked in the door, remembering that all I had to do was to find a seat in the back row.

But there were no rows. There were twenty tables with tablecloths and folding chairs, organized in two rows on either side of the parish hall and down the middle were more tables arranged end to end and loaded with food. Bowls and plates overflowing, so many they were fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

I didn't see my friend anywhere. I could still leave, I thought, but instead I asked two women leaning against the wall if they'd seen her. They nodded toward the front of the hall where the family table was. She wasn't there but I could see her empty chair.

I filled a plate with food and sat down next to a man finishing his lunch and because he was white, I am embarrassed to say, I shook off some of the uncomfortableness I'd brought in from outside, my own cloak of acute differentness. While the man and I chatted, several Native American women sat in a row on the stage and began to sing hymns, their voices clear and comforting.

While I listened to the singing, I caught the eye of my friend, the woman whose son had passed. She smiled and blew me a kiss and in that moment, it felt right to have come.

Then there was drumming, loud and solemn, and this brought many people to tears including the woman at the next table whose husband kneeled by her side and rubbed her back. Her shoulders shook. Finally, there was speaking about the man who had died.

First the elders, his relatives, his father, and then his friends, one after the other, standing quietly and just starting to speak with no request or cue. There were long silences between speaking, the nearly 200 people in the room quiet and looking down until a voice sounded.

I worried that the speaking would be finished too soon. I wanted my friend to hear more praise and stories about her son. No, I thought, dropping my shoulders, it was right to have silence. Silence has its own meaning. Let the rain fall when it will. And with each silence, each person standing, each time of waiting, I let go of more, let my feelings of being different and out of place rise into the air that everyone was breathing. It was peaceful and still. And then it was over.

Outside on the parish hall steps sat a large pot of orange and yellow fall flowers, arranged carefully with autumn leaves and stalks of green. Someone had just left them there or maybe I'd walked past them when I came in, wrapped as tight as I was in my cloak of misgiving. It didn’t matter. The flowers were there now, bending just slightly in the breeze, waving farewell and bidding safe travels. I drove home in silence, the truck windows down, the fall air rushing in, lifting everything higher.

Jan Wilberg is a writer and community activist living in Milwaukee. Her daily blog, Red’s Wrap, deals with politics, feminism, disability, and dogs. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, and several anthologies.