How do we eulogize people who were difficult to others and to themselves?
And how do we, as Pagan folk, perform death rites, especially for those of ambiguous spirituality and for an interfaith gathering? My Paganism has always aligned with Whitman’s decree that “every man shall be his own priest”, and the belief that the great sacraments, especially the one of closure, are not things we should outsource to a stranger in a cassock and stole who met the deceased once five years ago, but should be performed by one’s intimates.
When my alcoholic younger brother died at age 49, these were the questions that faced me. There was no one better suited to eulogize him than his brother the writer, and no one to lead some sort of farewell prayer or rite except his brother the Pagan.
Here’s what I came up with. If it turns out to be a useful example for you, I’m sorry for your loss, and for the difficult path. Related posts: my eulogy for my father (who was not a difficult person…well, maybe he had his moments, but don’t we all), and some thoughts about a ritual for when I die.
Hello everyone. I’m Tom, Jim’s brother.
So I’m going to say a few words — ’cause that’s what I do — and then I’d like to invite you all, if you like, to come up and share a memory of Jim that you have. And then I have a little ritual to close with.
* * * * *
I want to start with a little poetry. And I’m going end with some too. But this, this is a part of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”, that I read to Mom when she was really really sick, and unconscious, a few years ago, and we didn’t know if she would pull through. And I read it over Dad’s body when I said goodbye to him. And now, I read it over Jim the same way. It’s the best words I know for the transition from life to death.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward . . . . and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe . . . . and am not contained between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good,
The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
* * * * *
I want deal with the elephant in the room. I’m not going to lie: I’m angry at my brother Jim. And I think I’m not the only one who has anger as part of their mix of feelings right now.
I mean, it’s not supposed to be like this. Mom shouldn’t be at the funeral for her son. This is my younger brother, he was supposed to still be around at my funeral (far, far, far in the future). He should have been toasting 50th birthdays with Tim this year.
And I think we all feel that.
There’s another way to say it, an old-fashioned way that’s maybe better for this moment: I’m angry *with* him. Not “at” him, like pointing at him, but with him, because we’re in that situation *with* each other.
The folk singer Pete Seeger wrote a great song, “Letter To Eve”, where he says, “If you want to have great love, you got to have great anger”. Now, he was talking about political stuff, how we get angry at injustice and oppression.
But it also applies where, like Jim, someone sort of becomes their own oppressor. Where their ability for judgment becomes deranged somehow, and they steer a course of self-destruction. They’re the victim of their own crime, and we get mad at the perpetrator of that crime just as we’d get mad at anyone who hurt someone we love.
But here it’s the same person. And while they’re beating theirself up, like anyone else in pain, they sort of thrash around, trying to get out of it, get away, fight back against theirself. And sometimes while they are thrashing around, they hit us in the process and we get hurt.
It leaves us with a complicated mix of emotions. And that’s okay.
* * * * *
And one way we deal with that is a little dark humor. That’s always been part of our family’s ways, Jim had an appreciation for it. I wouldn’t tell this part to strangers, but if you were close with Jim I feel like it’s appropriate to tell you this:
A lot of you have been to the house, and know that Jim had his room in the basement. And that’s where he passed away. We don’t need to get into the details but he went quickly, he was talking on the phone one minute, and then just a little bit later, just, went. He didn’t suffer.
But he was not a small guy. So the two gentlemen from the funeral home who came…well, they had a challenging job getting him out of there.
And as they finally got him up the steps and out the door, with his toes sticking out of the bag — it was nice, this sort of embroidered cloth thing like a nice old suitcase or antique upholstery, not a plastic bag, it was a dignified as they could do it, but it was just a little small for Jim, and it’s too heavy to carry so they’re dragging him across the floor…
…and his toes are hanging out, as these two guys are trying to get him out the door — and later, thinking back on it, I thought, oh, it’s like Jim trying to get a drunk out the door when he was working as a bouncer…
…and as they take him past us, Mom, with a dark humor that Jim would entirely have appreciated, quipped, “Ah, James. Difficult to the end.”
And I feel like that’s just the perfect cap on it.
Jim and I would often joke about being Irish Polocks, how we could be head-headed and kind of dim, so…we’ve been *difficult* children. When I laugh and rage about that in him, it’s not without some self-reflection.
And being like that, we all know that he was too hard-headed to address the root of his problems these past few years, the drinking.
But in his own way, that hard-headedness kept him trying to fight on the physical side, trying to get his strength back. When he had his heart attack in 2020, everyone was amazed at how he recovered, physically, from weeks in the ICU. They thought he’d have to go though long term physical therapy but he pushed himself and was up and home sooner than they thought possible.
And even after his stroke, he was trying to exercise, lifting weights, even trying to do projects around the house with just one good arm.
He couldn’t understand the problem and so couldn’t attack it at the root. But he kept swinging at the leaves and the branches. In that way, he went down fighting. And I honor him for that.
I just wish he could have fought smarter. But. You know. Irish Polocks, what’re you gonna do?
* * * * *
When we were kids, Jim had all the athletic trophies. Soccer and baseball. Part of that hard-headedness was that he decided he was going to play catcher, even though he played sports left-handed. (He wrote right-handed but played sports left — it was always complicated with him, wasn’t it!) Now if you don’t know baseball, just trust me that a left-handed catcher is a rarity. If you search on the internet, one of the first hits is an article at MLB.com, “Why there are no left-handed catchers in [Major League Baseball].” There have been a handful over the history of the game, but right now there hasn’t been one in over thirty years, that’s how rare it is.
That didn’t stop Jim from setting his sights.
Mom didn’t want him playing football when he was little, so he never played rec league, but he still made the team his senior year at Overlea.
But before all that, was our baseball diamond and soccer field in the alley behind the house. Manhole cover home plate, fencepost first base, sewer grate second base, fence post third base. Lots of imaginary runners, lots of ground rule doubles when we hit the tennis ball into someone’s yard. (Dad would *never* have us play with a whiffle ball bat, that was the worst thing for your swing, so it was a wooden bat and a tennis ball or sponge rubber ball.)
Now, he was the natural athlete, and I was the kid so uncoordinated they sent me to remedial gym in elementary school. But I like to think I helped him develop his athleticism, all those summer evenings out back.
* * * * *
Another thing about Jim as a kid, he sleepwalked. One time our parents were still up, watching the 11 o’clock news or Johnny Carson or whatever, when Jim comes down the steps and starts walking out the door. Well, Mom and Dad led him back to bed, and asked him, still asleep where he was going. He was going to walk to our grandparents house. Which was only about a mile, but, still. Ambitious sleepwalking, not just going to the kitchen for a snack, he had a whole journey planned out.
One time my bedroom was being repainted, so I was sleeping on the floor of Jim’s room. In the middle of the night he sat up and yelled, “Tom! Tom! You got it, Tom? You got it?”
Well, what do you say? “Sure Jim, I got it. I got it.”
“Okay”. Boom, falls back asleep. Asked him the next morning, he had no idea what “it” was.
* * * * *
Jim was always someone who made friends easily. We’d go out to a Blast game, the whole family, and he’d go off on his own and come back with a new friend. “Gregarious”, to use a 50 cent word for it.
And that’s reflected in the people here today.
So I’d like to invite any of you who’d like to share a memory or say a few words, to come up and do so…
* * * * *
Jim wasn’t traditionally religious. But he had his spiritual side which could surprise you. Just a few days before he died he shared a poem on his Facebook wall – yes, a poem, I was as surprised as anyone. I’m going to read that in a minute here because I think it’s as close as we can do to letting him have the last word.
But first I’d like to invite you to join me in, not a prayer as such, but a positive visualization, for Jim’s blessing — whatever that means to you, to help us hold him in positive memory, or dedicating prayers or merit to his soul in the afterlife, however you believe, I invite you to join this.
We’ve got a bunch of photos here, of Jim from toddler on up, and of course you have your own memories. I’d ask you to specifically pick one of those images of Jim. Any age, an old image or a recent one, but try to be as specific as you can. In a moment I’m going to ask you to hold that image in your mind’s eye, but first let’s clear our minds for a second. Close your eyes, if you like, and feel the ground under your feet, supporting us all. Feel that you’re stable and rooted and grounded.
Now in your mind’s eye, see above you, up through the sky, into space. Directly over your head, far across the universe, is a star that shines just for you. Feel it connecting with you, feel the top of your head reach up for it like a flower turning to the sun.
Rooted deep and reaching high, we gather ourselves to bestow a blessing upon James Christoper Swiss, upon his memory and his spirit.
Now friends, I ask you to bring to your mind’s eye that image of Jim. As a child or as an adult, in whatever way you see him now. He’s beyond linear time. See that image start to brighten, to glow.
And let it glow little brighter. Maybe there’s a specific color that goes with that, or maybe it’s a white light glow.
And little brighter. Maybe there’s a tone that goes with that, a note, a sound? Maybe not.
Now friends, let us all breathe in together. And as you breathe out breathe into that light, making it stronger.
And again, breathing in, breathing out into the light, making it stronger still, filling this room.
And a third time, breathing in, breathing out as that light becomes so bright and strong that it fills the entire world, with a blessing for Jim.
Jim, we bid you farewell. We will carry the best of you with us, in love and remembrance, until we join you again. We love you. Rest easy.
* * * * *
As I said, Jim shared a poem on his Facebook wall just a few days before he passed. And I think it’s the perfect thing to close with this evening. It’s almost like he saw this coming, and sent us all a card with this inside. He sure did better this time than when he’d buy Christmas cards at the CVS on Christmas Eve, when they didn’t have anything appropriate left…but that’s another story. So I’ll leave you the poem he shared.