In our modern way of life - often jam-packed with work, family, and leisure - we are becoming increasingly oblivious to our obligations to others around us. A selfish emphasis on "me first" has left many of us with little or no time for others, both living and dead.
But it is not the living who are on my mind today.
A few weeks ago Don Stathulus, a professional colleague of mine, passed away unexpectedly. He was a well-known podiatrist on the East Side where he had maintained a busy practice for more than 30 years. He was a gracious and cheerful man and with his sunny disposition he brought much joy to all of us who knew him or would come across him in the course of our professional work. He was also a community leader, activist, and family man.
And yet at his funeral at the Greek Orthodox Church in downtown Toledo, filled to capacity with his family, friends, and well-wishers, there was hardly a handful of his professional colleagues. It was a weekday and perhaps many of them did not feel it was important to take the time to pay their respects to a man who had been in many ways part of their professional life for so many years.
I have noticed this phenomenon with greater frequency in recent years. The ambivalence of the medical profession was brought home to me many years ago when I attended a memorial service for a senior colleague who had died after a long illness. Even though I had known the man only from a distance, our paths had often crossed in the course of our daily work. He always took the time to inquire how I was doing. He extended this common courtesy and grace to almost everyone he would come across at work. To my utter surprise I saw just a few physicians at the service in the funeral home. None of his partners felt obliged to come to pay their last respects. Also conspicuous by their absence were the physicians he had trained and mentored during his long career.
I do realize that societal norms and customs change with time. Here in America we live in a different world and certainly in a different time. A relative lack of free time and a rather pathological fixation with individual and family privacy render us incapable or unable to fulfill our obligations to others. Or at least that is how we rationalize.
In most countries in the East funerals are public affairs. Total strangers join in the funeral procession and walk part of the distance toward the cemetery and help carry the bier. It is their way of paying respect to a departing member of the larger community of mankind.
No matter how we rationalize it, we are not self-sufficient islands in the vast sea of humanity. We are connected with others at work and at play.
The death of a neighbor or a coworker becomes an irritant and an inconvenience because it disturbs our neatly planned routine. So we use innovative ways to circumvent our obligation. We pay a fleeting visit to the funeral home or express our sympathy by sending flowers. Could a bouquet of neatly arranged flowers substitute for a few words of comfort delivered in person to the bereaved family?
I don't wish to give the impression that society has become insensitive. It has not. Most of us are courteous and considerate. We do pause to acknowledge and greet our coworkers, inquire about their well-being, and show interest in the happenings in their lives. Perhaps we could extend this courtesy and grace in death as well by canceling office hours, postponing a surgery, or forgoing a game of golf.