It was, I believe, Iago in Othello who once said, “If you don’t go to a guy’s funeral, he won’t come to yours.”
Or perhaps it was Yogi Berra.
Alice and I drove to western Pennsylvania last weekend for the funeral service of Brother Richard Finch. I've known Dick and his wife Ingrid and their two daughters since I was about twelve years old. They were a bit younger than me, but my sister grew up with the Finch girls as especially close, lifelong friends. All of us are almost five decades older now, and our two families have been as one all this time, despite time and distance. Even when lots of mileage separated us all, we found more than our share of reasons to get together on a regular basis.
When I told my family and friends that I was joining the Freemasons in 1998, Dick Finch was one of those men among my parents' friends who told me they were Masons, too. Dick was disappointed that he missed my EA degree, but he made sure to be at my FC and MM one day event at Calvin Prather Lodge in March 1999. And the moment it was concluded, Dick went from being that parent from my parents' generation who undoubtedly always had a snapshot in his head of me at 12-years old, to Brother Dick. In fact, he went out of his way every time I saw him afterwards or spoke on the phone to say "Brother Christopher,” and he’d always say it with that infectious, cheerful flourish that was pure Dick Finch.
Dick had left Western Pennsylvania and joined the Air Force in the 1950s, served in Korea, got married, and settled down to raise a family in Indiana, where he spent many years as a police officer. After retirement, he didn't really retire, and he became part of the Target racing team staff. He had an ebullient, outgoing manner, and the sort of instantly memorable personality you’d chuckle about in the car after first meeting him at a party. Dick never once met a stranger, and he was just as much at home joshing with the state's governor or the kitchen staff at a gala event.
Choices were simpler 50 years ago when families rarely strayed from their close, extended families. Even though they had spent most of their adult lives in Indianapolis, Dick and Ingrid moved to Hawaii a couple of years ago to be with their oldest daughter. He actually passed away the day before they were all due to fly to California for my own mother's 90th birthday party in January. Dick was 89 himself.
So, as always in these days of families moving far from their birthplaces and scattering across the country, there was a brief conundrum over where to lay Brother Dick to his final resting place. He was born near Graysville, Pennsylvania; lived most of his married life in Indianapolis, Indiana, where the bulk of their lifetime friends were; relocated to Louisville, Kentucky to be near their youngest daughter and grandkids; and finally to Hawaii in their most senior years where the weather was always perfect, and their oldest daughter lived.
In the end, it was decided that Brother Dick’s earthly remains should repose in the small Methodist churchyard cemetery in Graysville from whence he came, at the end of a little hillside of countless other Finches who had first settled there in the 1800s, raised families, passed away, and left their mark on the landscape, their community, and the character of their descendants.
Brother Dick first joined North Park Lodge 646 in Indianapolis back in 1969 when he was a police officer for the Indianapolis Police Department. And because he had been a Freemason for 50 years, that mystic tie that binds us all reached all the way across from Hawaii to Indiana to Pennsylvania.
And that’s how this full circle was completed for me that Saturday.
We all descended on tiny Graysville on Saturday morning. His widow Ingrid and daughters and son-in-law and grand children all came from Hawaii and Louisville. Alice and I represented Indianapolis, while my sister flew in from California. Brother Dick’s extended Finch relatives also came from Pennsylvania where they had never left. Despite the storms and tornadoes that had blown all across Ohio and into Pennsylvania all week long, the sky miraculously cleared, and it was a quiet and perfect morning. Even the Veterans Administration managed to deliver his veteran’s headstone three months ahead of their own prediction. That alone was a miracle all by itself.
I had contacted the Grand Secretary’s office in Pennsylvania for the family, and 29th District Deputy Grand Master David Moore and brethren from Waynesburg Lodge 123 and their Worshipful Master Charles A. Lemley, Jr. came to perform Dick’s Masonic service. WB Jason Craig, Past Master of Valley Lodge 459 was also there, and it was one of those bizarre cases of fate or coincidence or Providence that seems to happen among Freemasons. Jason was the first Master of the first lodge to ask me to travel out of Indiana and speak at his Pennsylvania lodge way back in 2006 when my Dumb Book was first published, and it was the oddest irony that that first speech was appropriately in “Masontown.” Thirteen years melted away as we again greeted each other as though it had been last week.
Pennsylvania’s Masonic Craft rituals are very different from any other jurisdiction in the U.S., and the same is true of their funeral ritual. So, even though I joined the fraternity because of the Masonic service I witnessed in Texas 20 years ago, and despite the fact that I’ve been to dozens of Masonic funerals ever since, this one was entirely new for me. It was as though I was discovering it for the first time all over again, but this time standing beside Brethren and facing the family I had known most of my life. Placing that sprig of evergreen next to the little wooden box of Dick’s ashes was the toughest dozen steps I’ve taken in a very long time.
After we had concluded, Ute read a wonderful tribute to her father, and I’d like to reprint part of it here:
"It seems fitting that we are gathered in this part of the country. This area is where my father grew up and this is where his character was shaped... his morals, values and beliefs instilled.
"My father was born as the only child to Lulu Finch, who as a single mom raised Dad in a loving home in the tiny village of Nineveh that included his grand dad James, grandma Maude and his uncle Bob, whom he considered a brother. The family home had no indoor plumbing. They had an outhouse and used gas lamps for lights. There was no furnace, instead they used a heating stone in the living room. Dad often reminisced with Elke and me that his childhood was in a simpler time, with little possessions and manual labor performed by all. Dad's chores included bringing coal in from coal shed, mowing, gardening, shoveling snow. He worked in the corn, hay, wheat and oat fields in the summer making 75 cents per day. He recalled he loved the smell of alfalfa.
"His family went to Waynesburg on Saturday nights for a cheap movie. And he loved sitting at the restaurant at the GC Murphy to drink chocolate sodas. The only family road trips he could remember was to Fort Necessity and a jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia in the rumble-seat of his grand dad's car.
"Once they got electricity, the family would sit in the living room and listen to the radio. Hence my dad's love of old time songs. In the winter, he sled the nearby hills on a Yankee Jumper he had made, fished in the creek behind his house, and with the other kids made a swimming hole by building a dam in the creek. Elementary school was in a two-room building in Nineveh. One of his greatest childhood days was when a friend's dad took a bunch of kids up to Pittsburgh to a real swimming pool. It was 50 cents to swim all day…
When dad was 18, he and two friends went to join the Navy. But one of his friends had bad teeth, so they joined the Air Force instead—they weren’t so picky! From there, dad's world opened up as he traveled to places like South Dakota, Mississippi, Nevada, Texas, Hawaii, Korea and Germany.
"I share all this to point out that during these childhood years, the foundation was being set for the man whose life we celebrate today… Dad lived to the principles taught to him with generosity, good humor and an everlasting positivity on life. He was grateful for everything, even if is was just a meal I cooked for him. He didn't want to complain or have anyone worry about him. You could always count on my dad to walk in the door with a smile on his face and give a cheerful greeting. He was Mr. Aloha…
"I am my father's daughter. I carry his DNA, as does my sister Elke, and his grandchildren Nik and Ali. But really, Dad left his DNA, his heart print, on all of us and we are all better people for having him in our lives…"
Funeral services happen every day, and everyday people read stories just like this every day to a grieving group of friends and families hundreds of times all over the country. Every single day. Sometimes it’s enlightening to hear them about someone you never knew. They aren’t famous, their town wasn’t named after them, they never had a statue, or published a book, or even had their picture in the paper their hometown doesn’t publish anymore.
Yet, the Brother Dick Finches of this world who lived through the last two-thirds of the 20th century inhabited a world that changed more and faster than at any other time in history. They changed it. And that is a trick of the Ages that may never happen again. Far beyond a mere onslaught of inventions or technological breakthroughs that altered peoples’ day-to-day living, nearly every single aspect of daily life, community, society has almost completely changed since Brother Dick’s boyhood. And yet, it was arguably his family’s lack of prosperity and near total deprivation of 'things' we don’t even think of today that built his character, instilled his principles, and made him the sort of eternally cheerful, loving and generous man he was. And a Freemason.
After everyone else departed, my wife and I remained at that little Methodist churchyard for a time and looked out at the field of silent stones. I said to Alice, “They were better than us. They were better, stronger, more resilient, more responsible, more compassionate, more giving than we are today.” Maybe that’s true. Or maybe that was just maudlin, post-funeral, funereal wistfulness for a friend now gone. It’s hard to say. But I can’t help but feel that the generation that fought WWII and the Korean War was the last one that still reached for “nobler deeds, higher thoughts, and greater achievements,” instead of just grabbing instead. Nothing was impossible for them, because they had seen so much change in their lifetimes. Many had been born in the sort of home Dick had been, with no electricity and a shack out back, watched Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon, and now had a super computer in their pockets. So nothing was out of reach for them.
As we walked back to the car, I looked back at the grassy field where Brother Dick had now taken his place among the many Finches who had all traveled to that Undiscovered Country before him, and I was struck by a very different thought. The neat rows of low, aging stones lose their individuality from a distance, and in many ways, they resemble the beginnings of what almost looks like the foundation of a building that hasn’t quite been completed yet. There are still empty spaces that need filling in before the actual structure can rise above it, but they will come eventually.
Too many of us today say as we walk away from funerals, “Hey, just dump my ashes in the ocean or scatter them in the backyard.” But that’s such an immature notion, because it partially robs the future of those necessary foundation stones. When Ute spoke of her father, the word that kept coming up was “principles.” And that is why Freemasonry has been, and will remain so vital, no matter how large or small it may become. We still teach those principles to our brethren in a world that has turned its collective backs on them. We speak of being "living stones for that house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." But once we are gone, if we depart this Earth without leaving even a single mark upon it, those who follow us will have nothing to learn from, and no foundation to continue building better than ourselves. It implies that our own lives have no meaning.
Of course, we all leave our imprint on the people around us. Brother Dick's legacies were sitting around the table at Applebee's after the service was over that Saturday. All of us are the temples that rose from his foundation. But three generations, or five, or ten from now, need to be able to look back and be reminded of where they came from, and who built the world they are briefly inhabiting.
When speculative Freemasonry was still evolving in the 18th century, the Master Mason degree became a lesson that countless other fraternal groups throughout the world later sought to imitate. Namely, to live each day as if it were your last on Earth; that Death is the great leveler; and to fully understand the importance of virtues and tenets and responsibilities, contemplate the grave.
To paraphrase that great American philosopher Sheldon Leonard, the men who designed this fraternity sure knew their potatoes.
His column is broken, and all of us mourn.
Requiescat in pace, my old friend and Brother.