The Meaning Of Public Funerals: It’s About The Lives

The Meaning Of Public Funerals: It’s About The Lives


Leonard Zwelling

At the end of last week, the country saw two large funerals take place on successive days. Both brought forth throngs of celebrities and presidents. Both were richly deserved tributes to greatness.

On Friday, The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin was given a send off she would have loved as members of music and political royalty stepped out for an eight hour celebration of her life as an iconic entertainer, master musician, and civil rights activist.

On Saturday, some of the same royalty and all of Washington, DC save one important omission, came together at the National Cathedral to pay honor to the life of Senator John McCain.

But what do we the living take from the celebration of the lives that are no more?

In the case of Ms. Franklin, her music did her talking although she symbolized both feminism and African-American exceptionalism in all the best ways. Had she done nothing else but sing Carole King’s Natural Woman and Otis Redding’s Respect, that would have been enough, but she did so much more. I was lucky enough to have met Ms. Franklin when I ran her show at Duke many years ago. She was regal even then and this was almost fifty years ago.

In the case of John McCain, his legacy is a bit clearer. While Ms. Franklin’s legacy is as much on vinyl as it is in the hearts and minds of those her songs and stances stirred, Senator McCain’s legacy is in his heroism and his contrary nature that was accompanied always by civility.

We need to pay tribute to both of these passings with our own behavior. Respect and civility to one and all is deeply lacking in our current public discourse at this juncture of American history. Senator McCain’s daughter made note of the fact that the America her father knew and fought for was already great and did not need to be made great again, a clear jibe at the current occupant of the White House who was notably absent from all of these celebrations, as was appropriate. Men who act like he does need not darken the joy and honor of these two great figures of American history.

Just as Mr. Trump was nowhere near these celebrations, he should be nowhere near our public life. His administration needs to be viewed as the aberrancy that it is, and he the leader of that aberrancy. He is a festering sore on the American consciousness that represents the worst of ourselves. Ms. Franklin and Senator McCain represent the best of America.

The take away from these two sad celebrations of two great lives ought to be our rededication to the principles that define us as Americans and not the ones that divide us for political expediency.

Mr. Mueller—do your work.

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