Last Tuesday, Valentine’s Day 2017, my grandpa Leuenberger’s cousin, Kenneth Reisacher, known to me as simply “Kenny” and to my dad as “Uncle Kenny,” passed away in his sleep. I wasn’t close with Kenny, my memories of him generated only from occasional family gatherings throughout the years. My strongest memories of Kenny are of him often challenging my older brother, Josiah (a competitive and successful runner), to a race. “Next time, we’re gonna race!” Kenny would say with a wide grin, each word sputtered out through one of the thickest Pittsburgh accents I’ve ever heard.
On Saturday, my brothers and I drove down Route 28 through the hilly neighborhoods of Pittsburgh to attend his funeral. It was a quieter affair, because, as morbid as it may sound, there aren’t a ton of people left or able to attend your funeral when you’re 85.
When we got there, we shuffled through the pastel-clad funeral home lobby, the kind that time (AKA interior decorating trends) hasn’t seemed to touch, and walked through the parlor to pay our final respects. For me, this experiences of walking past an open casket pushed me both intensely inward and intensely outward at the same time, and what was left was a strong pull towards these three words: beauty, terror, and insufficiency.
When I’ve walked past a person lying in state, I’ve experienced these intense mysteries simultaneously. It’s beautiful to think about the merciful promises of eternity, yet admittedly terrifying to grapple with the concept that reality as I know it now will one day end, and it is something I realize I am insufficient to fathom nor want to fathom at this point will take its place.
As the proceedings of Kenny’s funeral went on, I began to feel, most greatly of all, the weight of insufficiency. The gathering of people at the funeral wasn’t big enough. Not enough people spoke. The service was brief. The obituary was short. It felt insufficient. As I sat there at the start of Kenny’s funeral, I felt upset that there wasn’t more. More memories, more words said, more respects paid, more people in attendance, more thoughts in the obituary, etc. I felt frustrated at the lack of more. I didn’t even know what more I actually wanted to be said about Kenny or why, but I just did. But as I heard my dad’s memories of Kenny, I realized Kenny didn’t and wouldn’t have wanted more. Kenny wasn’t a more kind of guy.
Kenny was a long-time employee of an ornamental steel company my great grandfather started when he immigrated to America from Switzerland. As my dad told it, Kenny never cut corners in his work as a railing installer, but instead took his time to get the job done right. He treated all customers with respect, no matter how much cash lined their pockets or how big the job was. For Kenny, a successful day at work wasn’t about a pursuit of more. For Kenny, a successful life wasn’t about more, either.
Looking back now, I think I was upset by the modest nature of Kenny’s funeral because of an ingrained tendency to measure something’s value based on the outcome. Performance, grades, awards, numbers, sales, profit margins, positive reviews: these are the measures of success. But at a funeral, these things really have no place, no weight, no bearings on the outcome that is now reality. And truthfully, this all tends to make life and all its efforts feel fruitless, anti-climactic, insufficient.
But at the end, at Kenny’s end and my end and your end, too, it’s not about what we achieved in this life that bears the utmost importance. It’s not about who had more stuff, more kids, more houses, more money in the savings account. No—just as life begins with a mysterious miracle, so it ends with one, too.
At moments of birth and death—in the delivery room and the funeral parlor—it seems that the profound beauty of existence is the most striking. For a baby, the value of their existence does not begin until they achieve some kind set of circumstances, or are able to contribute to society in a certain way. As John Ames of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, one of my favorite fictional characters, tell his son, “… but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
It is the same at the end’s of a person’s life, too. Contrary to how life is up until that point, a person’s existence is not made more or less valuable because of performance, grades, awards, numbers, sales, profit margins, positive reviews, or even the impact a person has. To us mere mortals, it’s a difficult thing to grasp. In theory, we want to say the homeless drug-addicted man’s life matters as much as the life of our loved ones, but the feelings in our own hearts probably tell another tale.
Thankfully, we are not the final judge.
The judgements we cast at a funeral and the disappointment we feel is not ultimate truth. The terror and insufficiency we cast on our own lives and the lives of others is not the final word. Our eyes cannot see it, but the end is being made ultimately beautiful by one who came from humble beginnings, one who few mourned for, one who few viewed favorably from the day he took his first breath until they nailed him on a cross 33 years later. The 33 years were enough, time for him was sufficient, and nothing will ever need to be done to make his life more valuable than it is. He made himself less so we could have more. This first and last miracle. And this final miracle is more remarkable than we can ever imagine, because it’s our existence—our flawed, troubled, sinful existence—that he loves us for.
So, this is the existential conundrum I faced in the heart of a funeral parlor. At age 23, it is not exactly fun to grapple with these mysteries. I’d much rather be in the delivery room instead of the funeral parlor contemplating beginnings and instead of endings. Yet, this is not how life works. At the beginnings and at the endings, it seems to me that life on earth as we know it is all these things at once: beautiful, terrifying, and insufficient. And each has its place. Each has its lessons, its profound wisdom to impart upon us and change us and prepare us for the days ahead.
As time goes on, I hope that terror will loosen its chokehold, and I become more like John Ames, dazzled at the remarkable nature of existence. Caught up in the paradoxes this life creates, and finding contentment in them. And in the end, may our words echo his:
“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.”
This life is and will always be insufficient. And that’s where its beauty lies. May we all become increasingly dazzled by the miracle.