Funeral as Metaphor

Posted on 2011 February 25


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Some things we wish would last forever. That perfect summer vacation. The new car. A moment of victory.

Some people we wish would live forever. Our parents. Our spouses and children. Our friends. Our favorite actors or leaders. Our favorite teachers.

When these people or moments go, they leave behind a vacant place in our hearts, a place only they knew how to fit. Over time, those places do fill in, but it’s never quite the same.

One of my junior high school teachers died not long ago at age 85, and those of us who knew him were deeply saddened. Charles McClure, a math teacher for the Los Angeles Unified Schools, was one of those people whose passing leaves a gap in our spirits. He was larger than life, outgoing and friendly, his classes filled with a sense of adventure and enlivened with humor. McClure was strict but kind as an instructor; he’d go the extra mile to help us grasp the material and appreciate its value.

His funeral took place early in 2011 in a modest but pleasant church in Los Angeles’s West San Fernando Valley, where McClure had lived and taught. The service was well run, dignified, modest … and a little bit dull, in the manner of Presbyterian worshippers. (If you were raised among them, as I was, you’d know the routine.) The mood was quiet and a little bit sad but basically warm and friendly. Two pastors, a man and a woman, took turns presiding. The sound system, though mellow, wasn’t quite loud enough, and those who spoke — some choked with sadness — could be hard to hear. But the sound of their soulful appreciation of McClure came through, loud and clear.

Charles McClure piloted bombers during World War II; he was Phi Beta Kappa at USC; he taught math for forty years. McClure’s old military and church friends remembered him as “Chuck”, while his students referred to him as “Mister McClure”. Among his pupils, many grew up to be scientists, authors, or business and civic leaders. It became clear that he was more than a great teacher: he was a war hero, a prominent citizen, a loyal churchgoer, and a great dad and husband. All around, he was one of the good guys.

There was a short period when audience members rose to reminisce. They spoke of McClure’s love of humor, and some of his favorite jokes were retold to much laughter. I stood and described how, one day, he wrote on a blackboard a quote that read: “Dear President Johnson: I have heard of your War on Poverty. I surrender! Please send check.” McClure was that kind of guy.

He was lauded also for his innovative teaching techniques. His “Victim Drills” consisted of fast-paced strings of arithmetic –“Three multiplied by three, add one, divide by two, multiply by five, add five, divide by seven…” — which only the nimblest of young minds could follow to the end. McClure developed a weekly math quiz of twenty-questions, each worth five points, except that the last question offered an optional ten-point poser that was especially hard to solve; it was referred to as the “Child Slayer”, while the easier final question was called the “Coward’s Way Out.” (This system was so successful that it was adopted by other teachers in the district.)

After the ceremony, we formed a line from the sanctuary to the fellowship room across the hall to greet family members. This was the first time I’d met any of them. McClure’s wife was sweet and smiling and outgoing, and she set the tone. She told me she’d brought four kids of her own to the marriage, and that she and McClure had had three more, with grandchildren to boot. I said something pathetically inane to console her — she didn’t need it; she had things in hand — but she smiled and thanked me. I could see how she was a great match for McClure. Her kids looked a bit shell-shocked, but they were troupers, each bearing up quietly.

During the reception, people were friendly and talkative, trading McClure stories. Some asked me if I remembered so-and-so from school, and usually I couldn’t recall. There must have been thousands of students who took his classes over the years, so the arithmetical odds were low that I’d bump into someone from my own junior high days among a funeral group of 150.

The sandwiches and cookies were tasty. The pastors made sure we all moved outside to the back lawn to watch an aerial salute. The sky drizzled, but we ignored it. Two old warplanes roared into view, circled the church a couple of times, then flew off. It took all of two minutes. Someone in the crowd said there were supposed to be four planes. No matter.

A pretty, middle-aged lady chatted with me, and I realized she was the organist and choir director. I complimented her on her musicianship — I play piano, so I think about those things — and offered my card, in case she wanted to be on the mailing list for my report on the funeral. At that point she called to a gentleman, apparently her husband, who stepped over and accepted the card, and at once I understood that they had a pre-arranged ritual about dealing with men who talk to her. The single guy in me was thinking, “Darn!” while the citizen appreciated how conscientiously they nurtured their marriage. That, in turn, reminded me that I was among good people, in an old-school sense.

Wondering about the bits of peeled paint, water damage, and frayed carpet I’d seen in the otherwise tidy sanctuary, I took a chance and said to them, quietly, “I notice the church building seems to need some … uh … touch-up work.” But they didn’t take umbrage, and we had a brief discussion about how the congregation was aging, the children no longer attending, the money getting tight.

And that was my takeaway impression: the gap of McClure’s passing is not merely in our hearts but also in our community. He was one of the last of a great generation who built up America and made it shine — a time and place we might wish would last forever — only to leave it to descendants who don’t quite appreciate the achievement … and who, in many ways, neglect it.