FACE IT: Funerals Can Be Life Affirming

08/30/2010 03:58 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On a recent episode of "Hot In Cleveland," Betty White enters, dressed in black, and announces she is on her way to a funeral. When someone says they are sorry and asks who died, she replies, "I don't know, but I hear it's a great place to meet men." Well, I won't go that far but I would say it's a great place to think about how you live.

I went to three this summer: two for 89-year-old women and one for a friend in his early 50s whose misdiagnosis led to prostate cancer too advanced to catch. Stephen was a "publicist" but for all the right (as in Left) causes. He began with Cesar Chavez's grape boycott movement, moved on to Hayden and Fonda, (which is where I got to know him) filmmaker Oliver Stone, opening up Cuba to Americans, and so much more. He was the go-to guy on difficult but deserving issues, as well as the guy you could call when you wanted to control a story. One speaker at the memorial, who had been a star quarterback in high school at the same time that he "came out," recalled that when his family was besieged by media requests, not to mention negative neighborhood sentiment, he was told to "call Stephen."

Tom Hayden, who still has a brilliant mind and way with words. ("If I don't have my talking points from Stephen, I don't know what to say") described Stephen as a cross between Ari (as in CAA agent Emanuel) and Fidel. The final speaker was Maria Shriver, who was with him during his final days and hours. She captured the two sides of Stephen perfectly: a man who simultaneously was about "the people" and yet liked to be close to the famous. There she was interviewing hospice workers in the hospital while Stephen was asking her, "So is the Governor coming?"

Looking around that service, I felt like the entire political side of my life was being replayed. I saw many faces I hadn't seen since the '70s, and while most the activists were, like Hayden, grayer and less energetic, most are still out there doing their anti-establishment thing in established arenas. I felt proud to have known them, relieved to have recently co-written a highly political play called "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas," and inspired to stop obsessing over things like increasing wrinkles and get back to the matters that matter.

The services for Geraldine and Betty were of a celebratory nature, even though their family members were understandably choked with tears. Though I was theoretically in attendance to support their offspring, I learned about two women who never stopped being curious and open. Betty loved hearing about celebrities, Geraldine loved adding new people to her ever expanding circle. I listened to their children and grandchildren speak of how these women had grown up at a time when their full potential could not be displayed, yet they still had shaped many lives. I remember someone once saying that "we should live our lives with our funerals in mind." That may be a bit over the top but I have been reminded that what we do and how we treat people will encourage our kids to respect and perhaps even emulate such values. I know that watching my children watch "Don't Blame Me..." brought me far more joy than any applause or subsequent professional benefits.

The rabbi at Betty's service talked about why we are doing a great mitzvah by showing up at a funeral. I was taken aback at first, having always felt conflicted on the subject. Obviously, the deceased is gone and hopefully we told them how we felt about them when they were alive. But he convinced me that being there is beneficial not only to those closest to the bereaved, but is a healing and necessary way to help them -- and us -- move on. And to remind us that every moment counts.

I once complimented a woman for flying across the country for a friend's retirement party. I cracked that I was saving up my cross country trips for all the funerals I would one day be attending. She said, "that's all the more reason to be there for these happy moments!" I never forgot that and in a kind of summer symmetry, I will soon witness one of those happy moments, the Washington D.C. wedding of a young woman I have known since she was born. This is not totally painless, as I have never been a fan of weddings. All that expense and stress, not to mention the salmon poachers that may get used once or twice. (I kid you not: When someone asked me, all those years ago, if I was registered, I replied that I'd always been a Democrat)

But I think how Betty would have loved to see what all the Washington glitterati will be wearing, and Geraldine would turn every stranger into a friend.. Stephen would be cozying up to the well known faces and making sure the wait staff is union. Of course I will cry when the bride and groom walk down the aisle and likely have a fabulous time with many dear friends. I will wish the couple well on their new journey, but I will still be thinking about other journeys that have ended but were so well traveled.