The Final Farewell
Suddenly, a heavy hush came over the room. You knew even without being told or looking around that the family was entering the chapel. Slowly, they came down the aisle led by Percy Sutton's son, Pepe. Immediately, I noticed something different. It was his clean-shaven head. Even so that pronounced change could not divert attention away from the heavy burden he was bearing. His arms were around his mother's shoulders. She was literally hanging on to him.
They paused before the coffin, nodded to each other, and then went to their front seats. Still intertwined, they sat, bodies slightly stooped, and received a line of sorrowing mourners. I often wondered if this tradition was helpful, especially when mourners -- practically strangers, and/or had no little, or a strained relationship with the deceased. Some even asked, in words or looks, "Do you know who I am, or do you remember me? Your grandmama's third cousin married your grandpa, John Henry…Remember?" Or some people want to engage in conversation repeating hackneyed, worn-out phrases, all the while trying to look you in the eyes to make sure you know who they are and what they are saying. I always wondered if it doesn't add to the burden of the bereaved -- another something with which they are obligated to respond.
I remember the Bible story of Job. Everybody has read or heard about the suffering of Job. His three friends came to comfort him. They sat for three days and nights never saying a word. Then when they spoke, they said all the wrong things. Finally, Job weighed down with grief, summoned enough indignation to say, "Miserable comforters are ye all. Would to God you have kept your mouth shut."
After pondering these thoughts, when the line was exhausted, I took a chance, haltingly, and I went to Mrs. Sutton and Pepe. I knelt and looked into her eyes. I don't know if I've ever seen a human body in a more contorted pain. She is of small stature but seemed even smaller now as if the pain inside was drawing her into a knot -- perhaps that's how she felt. Our eyes met, and neither of us said a word -- but we knew. We felt! We shared! There was no need for word noise. I turned toward Pepe, the same interaction. I'm not sure if he even recognized me. I wasn't about to try to find out. Later, as we prepared to enter the sanctuary, we faced each other again. This time he said, "Thanks for being here and all you have done." I nodded and mumbled, "For me, there's nowhere else to be." I said to myself, "That is exactly what his father would have said and the way he would have said it."
It was time to march into the sanctuary. The mortician gave directions, "Please back away. Let the family closer before we close the casket. The ministers will say prayers, and this is the way we will line up. Program participants will go first, and then the casket followed by the ministers; then the staff followed by the VIPs."
There followed a sad spectacle of selfish projection. Instructions were ignored. People still jockeyed for space. "Please stand back. Please let the program participants pass. Please let the family though. Please let the casket out," repeated the mortician. After a herculean effort, success was achieved.
What took place in the smaller chapel with the family and VIPs was happening in the sanctuary. Reserved seats meant nothing. Uninvited occupants claimed seats and refused to move. "Please move and make room for the family," said first the usher and then the security all to no avail. They harassed and overextended staff—some, inexperienced, were doing the best they could. But the task was much too large. The church was packed with human bodies, a few people standing (mostly security), all seemingly on the move, uncertain which way was trying to follow mixed signals. When the big doors to the sanctuary were shut, crowds stood outside holding up green wristbands. Others claimed to be family members.
After observing the scene for a while, I decided I had enough. I've seen it all from the greeting hall to the chapel and in the sanctuary. Most of all I had a moment with the family. They were bearing it all with remarkable dignity, strength, and extraordinary courtesy that I am sure pleased Percy who was somewhere watching. Always, I feel bound to commend the family and funeral arrangers in these high-profile cases. What an awesome task it is to satisfy all concerns and interests. They usually do a great job. The mistakes, which are generally few, are understandable.
And I had a moment with old struggles and with the body of Percy Sutton. There was nothing left but speeches and prayers by people I knew so well and pretty much knew what they would say. I had been with all of them at other funerals. Better, I thought, to let someone have my seat. And most of all, I wanted to be alone. I guess I'm one of those rare, old dogs who prefer to bear his pain alone -- to crawl up under the house and hurt and weep. The deeper the pain, the deeper the desire to be alone. Of course, when I have had to live through the grief of transitioned loved ones, I have submitted myself to the traditions and sincerely thanked all of the supporters and sympathizers.
Lost in memories, I returned home from Percy Sutton’s memorial services and made myself comfortable. Then the telephone calls came. Would I agree to do an interview with a couple of television stations on the subject of the term “Negro” being included in the U.S. Census questionnaire? I said yes; I would do the interview with TV 11 in front of the Riverside Church.
It was around 5 p.m. when Monica Morales of TV 11 and the cameraman drove up.
She asked about the use of the word “Negro” in the Census questionnaire, and I responded:
"There is a cruel irony about this term being used and becoming public on the same day of the funeral of a man who did so much for so many, especially for people of African ancestry. He tried to empower minorities economically and politically. He understood the importance of culture. And here we are talking about Negroes today. We, people of African ancestry, decided a long time ago we no longer wanted to be called niggers, Negras, Negroes, or Colored. Every individual and/or people has a right to define themselves and the world should accept the definition. We are a people of African ancestry with a magnificent history whose ancestors made great contributions to civilization. Our pigmentation is black. We resurrected the majesty and the beauty of blackness.
“I am suspicious of the reference Negro. Is it an attempt to turn back the clock, to return to Jim Crow, to segregation? How far back, back to slavery? But we are not going back. Percy Sutton and others have brought us this far."
After the interview, fighting the strong wind blowing across the Hudson River, I made my way to the car.
To be continued…