A Funeral in S-Town

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t listened to the S-Town series and don’t want details revealed prematurely, please move along. I’ll be discussing the full series here.[1]

It is impossible to listen to S-Town without being moved because the story of its central character, John B. McLemore, it is so intimate. John B. was: brilliant but combative; gregarious but cynical; a man who could talk to friends for hours yet still remain deeply lonely. It’s a complex portrait of a human being that is only achieved because S-Town’s narrator and producer, Brian Reed, so carefully weaves a narrative of many threads: friends near and far, lovers, and John B.s rambling exchanges with Brian.

Once you grasp the richness of McLemore’s life, you can appreciate that among the tragedies documented in the series — and there are many — John’s B.s funeral is the greatest tragedy of them all.Reed describes why the experience of attending left him feeling so empty: “In his twenty-minute service, Brother Ben only talks briefly about John himself,” says Reed. Brother Ben, officiating, offers scripture, and shares a story intended to illustrate “how smart” John was because he could fix motorcycles.

“And then we’re back to Scripture,” Reed continues. “To me it was sad to see the life of someone with such personality remembered with so little; to see John honored with a service so utterly devoid of him.” What’s more, as Reed recounts, John B. was an atheist, and a virulent one at that, making the religious service and burial all the more, in Reed’s words, “disorienting.”

Chapters subsequent to the funeral only provide more evidence that the grave side service may very well have left others close to John hungry for more meaningful closure. Reed concedes that the service “served its purpose” for John’s mother, “the person here who mattered most.” And it is important to respect and acknowledge that hymns, symbols and sacred passages bring enormous comfort to those who dig in to their religious faith to make some sort of sense of loss. So it is no my intention to minimize or trivialize the place of these in a funeral service.

Yet I wonder if others, like me, are left empty by what can boil down to very generic and conventional trappings in a service. Perhaps John B’s funeral resonated with me because I recently attended a quite similar service for a woman — an acquaintance. I was left, like Brian Reed, terribly wanting — wanting fragments of the stories, the absurdities, the triumphs, the faltering that made this person uniquely herself. Instead, she remained opaque. There were some references to her faith, although I understood her to be one of those nominal church members who didn’t make much of a go of it except for Christmas and Easter. A couple of songs and hymns. And then, we’re back to Scripture.

She had been far from alone in her life. Her family and friends were clearly and openly grieving. The service was painfully void of “personality,” to use Brian Reed’s turn of phrase, yet full of emotion for her children and inner circle. The contradiction felt strange. I sat, I stood, and I prayed, all the while waiting for some door to open — some story or anecdote perhaps — that would allow me to connect to their grief in more than a cursory way.

Not that it was all, or even a little bit about me. Assuredly I was a bit player, with no business at all imposing any needs or judgments on the service. I was just sad because I left it knowing no more about her in death than I had in life. An acquaintance. A nice person. All too, too forgettable. And that felt wrong.

Perhaps some families and loved ones take their cues from their faith and their understanding of how funerals ought to be “done” because this pattern is comforting when comfort is sorely needed. Perhaps there are rituals and formalities that keep grief private in ways that some prefer. That’s okay. Certainly, these choices are highly personal.

But I do wonder if the taboos that tend to be associated with death and dying in our culture make it more difficult for those closest to the person who has died to feel like its okay to diverge from ritual — to express the full flowering of both celebration and grief in a service by writing their own poems, sharing their own stories, or otherwise personalizing what definitively wraps up and puts a bow on the meaning of someone’s life. This is a great gift for all who care enough to attend a service.

S-Town is evocative. Reviews and comments suggest that few are left untouched by the detailed portrait of John B. McLemore crafted by Reed and his team. They are touched because they must be left with a sense that the man was remarkable, multi-faceted, contradictory and ultimately mysterious.

But then aren’t we all? Few lives are documented with the time and care taken to bring S-Town into being. And few eulogies — for S-Town is ultimately a eulogy — will call upon seven hours of attention from an audience of hundreds of thousands of people. But I would like to think that there are evocative portraits and stories bound up in every human life. And I would like to see end-of-life services and celebrations as opportunities for these stories to be shared. Our unique flaws, quirks, achievements, tragedies and vulnerabilities make our narratives full and authentic; they make every life a creative act.

So can there  be a role for more creativity in funerals? We might be better off for it. Rituals can anchors in both positive and negative ways. They may keep us tethered when we need it, but they can also carry a weight of potential isolation walling people off from one another when “meaning of life” questions are on the table in a big way. Alternatively, creative and personal expressions of grief carry emotional risk, but also the potential reward of a gathering that leaves a network of souls feeling more connected in the wake of a life that has passed.

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[1] I’d like to add that much as S-Town has provoked so much feeling in listeners – myself included – it raises some troubling ethical dilemmas. For more on this, Gay Alcorn’s commentary in the Guardian April 22nd, and an earlier discussion by Aja Romano, Vox, April 1st.

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