Got news? Yes, there was a funeral for Ann B. Davis

I realize that I have written two GetReligion posts (here and then here) about the mainstream press coverage of the life and faith of the late actress Ann B. Davis, who was a friend of mine from my days on the religion beat in Denver. However, I continue to hear from readers who find it amazing that so many journalists spent so much ink on reports about Davis, yet didn’t seem all that interested in her actual life, other than her roles on television screens.

Well, there is that principle again: Television (or politics, or sports) is real and worthy of ink, religion is not so real and, thus, is not so worthy of ink.

The woman we all called Ann B. died at age 88 at home just outside of San Antonio, the home she shared with Episcopal Bishop William C. Frey and his wife Barbara, the final connections of a multi-family, multi-generational household that had been together since the mid-1970s. If you knew anything about Ann B., and especially her love of Bible studies, you will not be surprised to know that she was active in a nearby parish and that people there knew her well.

Thus, I am happy — thankful even — to report that The San Antonio Express-News sent a reporter to cover the her funeral. It is especially fitting that they sent the newspaper’s religion-beat specialist, reporter Abe Levy, rather than someone out of the entertainment pages. The resulting report included content from the words spoken in the funeral, something that cannot be taken for granted in this journalistic day and age. Here is a key chunk of that:

Her spunky personality and Hollywood success laced eulogies at her private funeral Friday morning at her home parish, St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Boerne. Yet, the gathering focused memories on what the speakers called Davis’ exemplary devotion to her faith, especially her decision in mid-career to leave Tinseltown and join an Episcopal community in Denver. …

“The media had a field day” recalling her acting career, said William Frey, 84, a close friend and retired Episcopal bishop, during the homily. “But most of them have missed out on the one thing that has driven her for the last 40 years, and that is her faith.” …

Davis moved with Frey and his wife to San Antonio in 1996. She regularly sang in the choir and rarely missed Bible studies or the church’s morning worship service on Wednesdays.

Direct, and to the point. However, note the reference to Wednesday morning services.

That is a sign of her devotion — every pastor knows that people in the pews for non-Sunday services are the salt of the earth — yet it also is a hint that on Sundays she was probably worshipping somewhere else, perhaps offering her testimony to others (or traveling with the Freys on ministry trips).

As a reporter who has covered many funerals, I also wanted to note that this story did not, for some reason, include any details from the funeral rite itself. Why does that matter? Often the hymns and biblical texts have been chosen by the deceased in advance, offering a kind of commentary on their own pilgrimage. Often, these details are highly symbolic, even if the choices were made by friends.

Let me give you an example. I once attended the funeral of a very driven, very energetic academic leader at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He had fought cancer for more than a decade, through surgery after surgery after surgery. In his will he specified that the opening hymn at his funeral would be “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand,” which opens with these famous lines:

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
and cast a wishful eye,
to Canaan’s fair and happy land,
where my possessions lie.

I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land;
oh, who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

Now, this hymn can turn into a bit of a dirge if the tempo is slowed down. Thus, my friend (yes, I was in the choir) specified in his will the Metronome setting at which he wanted this hymn played and sung, making an up-tempo, triumphant performance a legal necessity. The organist entered at the beginning of the service and set the Metronome on the top of the organ, where the whole congregation could see the arm clicking back and forth setting the brisk tempo.

A rather symbolic detail, I would say.

Thus, I am curious to know what the congregation sang at the funeral for Ann B., especially since I know from personal experience that she had very strong feelings about church music. Was some symbolic use found for her tambourine? And the Bible verses for the day? What did they have to say? Was there a sermon, or were the remarks from Bishop Frey taken from the sermon?

In other words, this was a fine story. Yet I still was left wanting to know a few more religious, liturgical details from the rite — because those words mattered too.

However, the story did end strong:

(Davis) accompanied Frey for a few years on his visitations to do ministry in hospitals and other settings, including churches where members stopped her for autographs. Her rule was she’d only sign her name on church bulletins.

“If people wanted to show the autograph off, they had to admit they’d been to church,” he said, evoking laughter.

The Rev. Paul Frey, the retired bishop’s son, also recalled her penchant for volunteering at a homeless center in Denver. She asked him for a tour to see which job she could do.

“Afterward, she said, ‘I want a backstage job. I want to do laundry,’” said Paul Frey, an Episcopal priest in Laredo. “I told her that meant cleaning mostly really nasty socks. These guys have been wearing socks for three or four weeks. She said, ‘It’s OK,’ and did it faithfully for more than six years.”

I would have preferred “dedication,” over the word “penchant,” but you get the point.

Ann B. and all of those nasty socks hidden backstage in a small room at the homeless shelter. Did you see that in other mainstream reports? You should have.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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