February has been a month of funerals. There’s something fitting about attending those ceremonies on days of steel-gray skies, when snowflakes sift down on the modest gathering of mourners huddled at a gravesite as the first spades full of earth scatter across the top of the coffin. The funerals I attended on two Sunday afternoons were of men whose names never found their way into any newspaper headlines and who will never be remembered in any history book. One was a Holocaust survivor, who escaped that horror as a teenager and went on to raise a family while building a successful dry cleaning business that relied on his deft tailoring. His last years were stalked by the shadow of dementia, as his family worked to honor his fierce determination to spend them in dignity in his own home. The other was a man in his mid-seventies, a distant cousin with a passion for cars, whose mental disability didn’t prevent him from extending himself to perform small yet persistent acts of kindness for others as he fashioned a rewarding life on a foundation of caring and compassion. Neither man sought recognition for his good deeds. Each would have scoffed at the notion he was in any way extraordinary. Their emphatic ordinariness distinguished them both.
“Grief is the tax we pay on our attachments, not on our interests or diversions or entertainments,” wrote Thomas Lynch, the Michigan funeral director and poet, in an essay decrying what has become the obligatory torrent of communal mourning that accompanies the deaths of celebrities like John F. Kennedy, Jr. or Princess Diana. I’ve always shared Lynch’s unease at those ceremonies, at the way our emotions are manipulated to prod us into a ritual of shared sorrow for someone whose life was so remote from ours it could have been lived on a different planet. We admire their talent; we envy their beauty, their power, their fame. And yet daily, it seems, something is revealed that reminds us we know so much less about these lives we glimpse from a distance than we imagine. I thought of Lynch’s words as I sat in the wan sunlight of spare chapels on these frigid February afternoons, recalling what I knew of the lives of the simple, good men who were buried this month. I listened to their families share stories of how their daily deeds—a word of encouragement, the example of a selfless gesture, a touch—imprinted themselves on the hearts of their loved ones. And I understood again why the accounts of these humble deeds evoke a grief that is true and real.