I don't believe it: a rambling reminiscence from my father's funeral

Donald William Shunn
My deepest thanks to everyone who posted or called or sent cards on the occasion of my father's passing. (Well, to everyone but the ones who tried to use the opportunity to reassure me of the reality of the afterlife. Bad time to make your dubious point.) The sympathy and concern were very touching and very much appreciated.

My wife and I returned Saturday from the funeral, which was held in Kaysville, Utah, the town where my parents have lived for 28 years. The funeral was a curiously joyful affair for the family, though punctuated of course by bouts of deep grief. My mother seemed to be doing better than just about anyone else, as if the burden of my father's long illness had at last been lifted. Relatives—and I have a lot—and friends came from far and wide, and many, many folks from the ward where I grew up dropped in for the viewing and/or service as well.

It was hard to walk from one end of the church to the other without being delayed an hour by people wanting to talk. I enjoyed seeing everyone and catching up, but this was also unfortunate in that it prevented me from getting to the men's room before the funeral service began. As a pallbearer, I didn't have a chance to slip away at the end of the service, either. So it was off to the cemetery in a limo for the interment and then back to the church, before sweet relief could be obtained. A short four hours.

My two brothers, Tim and Lee, spoke at the funeral, as did a former bishop who is a close friend of the family. My brothers' remarks were excellent, though I frequently found myself wishing I'd known the person they were talking about better. My brothers are Siblings Five and Six, which means they grew up in a different Family Era from the four oldest, and very different from My Era, the Epoch of the Firstborn.

The former bishop who spoke is someone I knew very well when I was a teenager and a lost young man in my early twenties. He too spoke about a man I didn't know well, but whose generosity of spirit I certainly witnessed from afar. My father had a gift for connecting with troubled and disadvantaged youths, though in my case a different set of expectations probably interfered with that ability. (For my listing as a pallbearer in the printed program, I deliberately chose to be called "Donald William Shunn II," a name I have not used for well over a decade, probably because it gives me a claim on a connection no one else has with him. I sure would have liked to have connected over a beer, though.)

I cried several times during the service, though not when I was wondering what was wrong with me that I could never connect with the man the way everyone else seemed to have, and certainly not during the part's of the bishop's remarks that seemed directed explicitly at we four scattered siblings (a solid fifty percent of the total) who have broken the celestial family chain by removing ourselves from the Mormon faith. During those interminable parts I gritted my teeth and clenched my sphincters.

I was very glad to have my wife with me, though she was rather discomfited to have seen my father's dead body lying in its casket dressed in Mormon temple robes.

My extended family is vast enough when you count only blood relatives, but to this dense tree must be added the couple who took my father under their wings in his early twenties, after both his parents has died. This was the couple I knew growing up as Grandpa and Grandma Stone, who between them had twelve children of their own—eleven from previous marriages, and one together. At the Relief Society luncheon that followed the interment, I spent an inordinate amount of time greedily lapping up stories about my father from one of the eldest of these, Stephen Stone. Stephen also told me what it was like to grow up in the house of his father, a respected psychologist and minor Mormon celebrity. It was a side of Grandpa Stone I'd never heard before, and the parallels to me and my father were downright eerie. I had to wonder if my father hadn't picked up a good number of his early parenting techniques from Grandpa Stone.

At a Mormon funeral, particularly one filled with people you haven't seen in nearly two decades, religious faux pas are bound to be made. There was the older man (another former bishop!) who mildly scolded me for wearing a beard, and who, when told we lived in Chicago, could only reminisce about the time he looked down from the top of the Sears Tower and thought, "Look at all those people! So many to convert!"

That drew only an appalled stare from me and my wife, but my proudest moment actually came at graveside shortly after my father's interment. The bishop who had spoken at the funeral, a man I really do love and respect a great deal, and who I'm sure many times heard my father agonize about my apostasy, held me by the arm and, after expressing his sympathy for my loss, fixed me with an intense stare and said, "It's true, you know. Deep down you know it, don't you."

"I don't," I said, and as he swept me into a tight embrace (was he afraid to look me in the eye at that moment?), I went on, "Cal, I'm like my father that way. I can't say something that I don't believe, and I don't believe it."

"Think about it for me from time to time," he said.

"I think about it all the time," I said.

He nodded. "We can still be friends, though, right?"

"Of course," I said.

That evening, because my father had come out of one of his final fogs long enough to ask if Mom would still be all right after the $2,000 pizza party (okay, maybe he hadn't emerged all the way from that fog), we had a raucous pizza party at my parents' house. My wife and I are on a diet that doesn't permit pizza, but we had some anyway, and it was good.