Funerals and Family

The first funeral service I did for a member of my family was in eastern Oregon, ten years ago. My taciturn grandfather had died, and two of my brothers and I drove across the state from Portland to Joseph, over the Blue Mountains in a heavy February snowstorm. I suppose weddings and funerals are the two occasions that most often bring members of a family together after the regular pathways of their everyday lives wind and diverge. After the funeral, and the committal at a bitterly windy hill-top cemetery, my brothers and I found a little bar in town with a pool table. We told some stories and laughed and played pool badly. We asked the bartender to make something that our non-drinking brother might like, which involved him having to yell “monkey balls!” prior to downing it. Even though we were there because of something we would rather have put off for as long as possible, it is one of my favorite memories. Funerals and their aftermath can do that. 

I thought of that time again while watching Raymond & Ray (2022; streaming on Apple TV). Raymond (Ewan McGregor) shows up at Ray’s (Ethan Hawke) house to tell him that their father (whom they call by his last name, Harris) has died. They are half-brothers, and Raymond tells Lucia (Maribel Verdú) later that their father named them with the same name just to mess with their minds. Raymond tells Ray he needs him to drive them to the funeral because Raymond doesn’t have a license, due to a DUI after the break-up of his third marriage. 

Because funerals (at least as they often play out in modern America) are primarily about memory, Raymond and Ray are forced to reconsider their mutual, negative childhood experience at the hands of their father. While the abuse seemed primarily psychological and verbal, both Raymond and Ray are happy to bury both their father and their past. They discover that the process is not quite so easy, although the trip opens up long-suppressed feelings, which allows them, perhaps, to begin to heal. 

Their father’s will contains a clause that the brothers who show up dig the grave, lower the casket, and fill in the grave again. Raymond and Ray begin to dig, and then Lucia shows up with her son, whom she introduces, and says, “Simon, meet your brothers.” Then, two more, younger men arrive, who introduce themselves as fraternal twins (and acrobats!), and Harris’s sons from another relationship. So the five half-brothers, Lucia, the funeral director (Todd Louiso), a pastor who introduces himself as “Rev West” (Vondie Curtis-Hall), and Harris’s erstwhile nurse Keira (Sophie Okonedo) all spend several hours around the grave. Raymond finally lets his anger out via Ray’s revolver, and Ray is able to release his bitterness via a childhood trumpet that Harris had told him he pawned. 

Though they did not know of the existence of any of these other people, neither Raymond nor Ray are surprised. But Raymond says to Ray, “We didn’t really know him at all, did we?” I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house when I was a child. Until they moved to eastern Oregon, nearly every December 26 involved a trip south to their house. I have pictures of me as a young boy on top of one of my grandfather’s horses. But children assume that everything transitory is permanent, and maybe that doesn’t change too much even when one is a young adult. 

I knew my grandfather mostly by what he made: stained glass, carved wood, camouflage-painted wooden rifles (the length of each determined by the age order of my brothers and me); and by photographs of what he did: elk he had hunted and salmon he had caught. And then there was the two-day fishing trip one summer. He paid for me the exorbitant charge for a non-resident fishing license, and we got up early two days in a row (to the annoyance of my wife, and probably my mother as well; but what were we to do? We couldn’t waste the second day of the license). He ate cereal with heavy cream (or half-and-half?) before we left in his Toyota pickup to drive up into the hills to some trout-stocked lakes (ponds, really). He told me where he would go to collect firewood; we stopped at a busy overlook; we didn’t talk too much (maybe I inherited that from him). I ventured a couple questions about his younger self and my true maternal grandmother. And it bothers me that I have only impressions of his profile as we wound around jackknife curves and over deep potholes, rather than the memory of his actual answers to those questions.

None of this has any “meaning” for any of you, probably, except for my own immediate family. But even though I didn’t love Raymond & Ray (I found Ewan McGregor’s acting a little wooden and awkward, for example; or the writing may have been at fault), it demonstrates something of what movies can do when the stories of other people come close to the truth of our own lives. Who knows if I remembered all of that correctly? Memory is an unreliable witness to the events through which we have lived. But our memories live as we tell them, so maybe films like this can provoke us to tell those stories and remember those times more often than the few occasions when our families are reunited at weddings and funerals.