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Image from www.thanatos.net

My uncle passed away last Friday. My maternal grandfather passed away the previous July and my paternal grandfather the one before. July is no longer our favorite month.

My family used to see each other primarily at the major holidays, but now we have to add in funerals. I have learned several things from watching my family at these funerals.

1) Telling family stories at funerals is very important. My youngest son knew his great-grandfathers and he knew his great-uncle, but he didn’t know them as we did until their funerals. Those stories have helped shape his sense of our family’s values–that they extend back for generations and that embodying them can earn you the reward of having your son write the most amazing tribute to you when it’s all over.

2) Families are amazing social structures. I know I love my family–even the crazy bits–but when I watch them at these moments, it is etched on my heart. People show the best parts of themselves at these things–and sometimes the worst, but we forgive them because we’re family.

3) The Victorians had it right. They took death portraits. This sounds so socially wrong, but I have longed to take pictures at these three funerals. I have these images in my mind, but I know the day will come when my memory will fade or fail and I don’t want to forget these moments.

–>My father’s eyes moisting up as he read his letter to his father, which my youngest son repeated in paraphrase months later when asked at school to write about his favorite senior, his great-grandfather.

–>My mother resting her cheek on her father’s coffin,, her eyes closed just after the lid was closed.

–>My grandmothers kissing my grandfathers’ cheeks for the last time.

–>The honor guard handing my grandfather’s and uncle’s flags to their widows.

–>The honor guard giving the 21 gun salute for my uncle

–>My cousin on my dad’s side playing the most beautiful rendition of Taps for my maternal grandfather. I loved that kid more than any other cousin at that moment.

–>My aunt, my uncle’s wife, kneeling before my uncle’s coffin and holding his hand in a quiet moment during visitation.

–>My aunt, my uncle’s sister, the pair of whom my grandfather described as thick as thieves, standing next to her brother’s coffin and stroking his cheek over and over.

–>My surviving uncle choking back the tears as he told us all that, even though my uncle had decided to end his life, he did not go quietly into that good night. He fought as long as he could, but we all get tired.

Families fight, they lose touch with each other, they grumble, and they love. But, in moments of sorrow, they remember what it means to be family and why, at the end of the day, we love each other with a ferocity that has to come from the wild evolutionary past.

And that deserves to be a Kodak moment.