Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Celebrating Fred


I believe it is a generally understood fact that most funerals are somber, serious, deeply sad gatherings. Mourning and loss and regret mixed with lots of black clothing, a minimally personal homily or eulogy from a religious figure, cold ham salad sandwiches made by the very kind church ladies, and an exhausting collection of family members forced together to grieve in a way that can feel impersonal and disconnected from the essence of the person being missed. Often staid traditions and the chilly, antiseptic quality of a floral and beige funeral home sucks all the personality and joy out of what can be a celebration of a life well lived. Which is what makes the weekend we spent in Omaha last month so special. A celebration is exactly what Joe and I had the honor of participating in, a true memorial celebration for Fred Wupper, the 95 year old patriarch of the Wupper clan.


My husband Joe's mother, Sherry, married John Wupper, Fred's oldest son, back in 1991. So John has been in Joe and his brothers' lives for more than two decades. And therefore they have been an extended part of the Wupper clan for just as long. So when John's father, Fred, passed away at the end of September, it was a true loss for the whole family. John has two younger sisters, and all three of them have a few kids, and now many of those kids have kids. Fred's family is now large, diverse and scattered across the United States and even the island of St. Martin. As Fred's health declined over the summer and early fall, John and his sisters kept the family connected and apprised of the latest news with these  thoughtful emails. Each email, weekly at first and almost daily toward the end, had a quick update and prognosis at the top, and then shared a memorable story about Fred's life. They were funny and sweet stories, and such a wonderful way to remember Fred before the inevitable advances of age weakened his energy and his health. But age never weakened his zest or exuberance for life. Right up until the end Fred loved ice cream, loved visits from his family, and kept his wicked sense of humor.


So when Fred passed away, John and Sherry and the sisters requested that all of the family come together. Come together for an entire weekend to celebrate and remember Fred and the love, commitment and passion that created his clan. So we did. We gathered in Omaha in October. We shared meals and drinks, laughs and reminiscences.




And Fred would have loved it all. Babies ran around, wine was poured, and that was all just the first night.


The memorial service was held on Saturday at the chapel of the assisted living facility where Fred had lived for the last several years. It was his chapel and he wanted his friends, staff and family to be able to gather there, looking up at sun streaming through the stained glass, seeing the corn stalks from his farm propped up next to the mums and pumpkins of a Midwestern fall and listening to the music and memories of his family and friends. A slideshow with big band music played. Many brave family members stood up and shared stories about Fred. Through tears and tight voices, grandchildren and children remembered times that exemplified Fred's tenacity, his kindness, his humor, his true love for his wife and children, his steadfastness, and many many stories involving his deep love for the healing properties of ice cream.


After the memorial, the family headed right around the corner to have an ice cream in memory of Fred. It's the most joyful and silly thing I've ever done after funeral, and it was perfect. After spilling cones and dribbling on ties, and wiping off the sticky hands and faces, we drove over to the cemetery for the inurnment.




Fred was a WWII veteran so the military presence, complete with a gun salute and flag presentation took place. It was emotional and moving. The pomp and tradition felt very appropriate and respectful in honor of Fred's service, which was a very important part of his life.




Having married into the family a little later and living out of state, I never knew Fred quite as well as I would have liked. I always enjoyed talking politics with him at holiday gatherings, he was a staunch Democrat and was famous for showing a Michael Moore documentary at his retirement community, much to the chagrin of the predominately Republican residents. He always had a good story to share. After serving as a pilot in the 1940's, Fred had a passion for flying and I remember seeing his face after he had come back from flying a glider (in his 80's!) and that look of pure joy on his face. Even later in life, Fred knew how to make the most of a day.


After the weekend spent with Fred's closest family and loved ones, I feel like I know him well now. Because they knew him so well. The respect for others, the appreciation for a perfect DQ cone, the warmth and kindness, and wise, pragmatic advice that Fred bestowed on his children and those lucky enough to know him, will always last. Fred may be gone, but his legacy is broad and powerful and he imparted a gentle strength that will always keep his family connected and comforted. I'm happy to be a part of Fred's extended clan. And now I kind of want some ice cream. I know he would approve.

All photos by Joe Sands, of course.

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