Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Journey to the Funeral

The Journey to the Funeral

On November 17th, 2009, I woke up and read a message on Facebook – the modern day bearer of all tidings – posted by one of my swim coaches from my childhood.  It read, “Briefly, David collapsed while running on Saturday morning; he - as you can imagine - was in good health and good shape.  We are at a loss to understand how this could have happened to him.”  When I read those words, it was not clear to me what had happened.  I thought perhaps he was in the hospital, in serious condition and that the words to follow would be a call for prayers and support, a rallying cry for healing.  What followed was, “The services for David will be at First Presbyterian Church.”  David Knauert, one of my best swimming friends from high school, was dead.

Since the end of our swimming careers 15 years ago, David had become a running maniac.  During one recent stretch, he ran 120 miles in 10 days, often by himself into the night after the kids were asleep.  On Saturday morning, November 14th, 2009, David was running on the streets of Atlanta with his best friend.  He and his wife and four children were passing time in Atlanta for a few weeks, waiting for their visas to come through.  David was an ordained Presbyterian minister and had just received his Doctor of Divinity from Duke University. His family was headed to Brazil to do missionary work when, 300 yards from Emory U. hospital, David collapsed.  A doctor and nurse nearby got off their bikes and started to help him in seconds.  Ambulances arrived within minutes.  They paddled him (the chest paddles you see in the movies) in the street, but he flat-lined.  They never got a pulse.

David and his wife, Leigh, and I were co-captains of our high school swim team.  He was, to me, a swimming brother, a concept difficult to explain to those who have not spent thousands of hours enduring the physical and mental tests of competitive training.  We competed, in the best sense of the word.  We made each other better, better swimmers and, through swimming, better people than we could have become on our own without the brotherhood of the swimming lanes we shared through our youth.  In short, David was one of a small group of guys that grew up together, like brothers do, in the swimming pool that was our home.  Leigh was David’s high school sweetheart.  She was a swimmer too, a good friend of all of ours.  Leigh said to a friend just a few days after David’s death, “I’m so grateful.”

“Grateful??” her friend asked, incredulous that she could find gratitude knowing that her 4 kids will grow up without their father.

“What if he had died at night on one of those runs?  Alone?  We would only have found him in the morning, never knowing if he suffered, how and why he died, if we could have saved him.  He died in his friend’s arms.  He died 300 yards outside of Emory University hospital with a team of doctors and nurses with the best equipment fighting to save his life.  At least I know: nothing could have saved him.  That makes it easier.”  Gratitude.  When I hear myself complain sometimes, I try to think of Leigh.  Perspective.  She found gratitude.

Two days after I read about David’s death on Facebook almost a year ago, I was on a red-eye to the holy city of Durham, North Carolina where David would be buried.  I got a cup of coffee and wrote in the terminal of the airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, my stop-over city on the way to Raleigh-Durham.  I was waylaid for a while but the fog broke and our small plane soon took off for the last leg of this funeral journey.  My friends, two more swimming brothers, picked me up at the airport.  We traveled to the hotel, got changed into suits, and at 4pm Eastern Standard Time, helped bury our childhood friend.  I felt honored to do what the Jewish tradition calls a hesed shel emet – a true kindness, one that cannot be repaid – to comfort David’s wife, to help escort him to the next world.  It is something I hope others will do for me one day, may God make it a long time from now.

The journey from death leads to heaven or to God or back to the earth or to a place beyond.  But to where does the journey to the funeral lead?  To attend a funeral is to make a journey to a journey; a pilgrimage to escort those I love, or their bodies, to the border of this world.  Not only those I love.  Jewish tradition teaches a funeral is so holy we must abandon all other tasks to accompany all dead to their resting place, not only those we love.  But where does the pilgrimage of accompaniment lead?  To grief?  To honesty? To death, yes, but also to an awareness of life which can only be achieved through an awareness of grief and death.  It is a journey beneath the surface of our lives, a reminder of that which bubbles beneath.  Sitting next to my coffee in an airport, alone, I crave, ache and yearn for my children and my wife and my life ever more because David is gone, because tomorrow if I were to die as he did, I am given a glimpse at what will be thought and said and remembered after I am gone.  More important, I am given a pause between the notes, silence that only gazing at the grave provides, to listen to God’s voice within the stillness of my mind and ask, “what do you want out of your life?”  My answer is life.  Life.

November 14th, 2010 marks one calendar year since the death of David Knauert.  November 14, 2010 corresponds to the 7th of Kislev, exactly three years on the Jewish calendar since the death of my student and friend, Joel Shickman.  May both of their memories be for a blessing.  To funerals of friends, I have journeyed there and back, dare I say too many times?  I have inhaled the question asked by the rabbis long ago, “would it have been better never to have been created at all?”  I have cried out in despair, “why did I bring children into a world of such pain and darkness?”  But last night, as I prayed and said kaddish for my friends who are gone, I understood why the prayers tell us that God resurrects the dead and gives new life.  Joy comes in the morning.  Life awakes in spring time.  God finished creation and declared, “and it was good.”  The grave is a meditation, a dip in a pool beneath splashing waters; it is a womblike wonderland in which I push off the wall, fly, and feel a sense of awe at being alive.


  1. Daniel - thanks for sharing David's story. I was not aware of his death. Great writing as always.

  2. Thanks for sharing that, Daniel.

  3. You have not met me, but we had a mutual friend in David. Thank you for this. Thank you.

  4. Dan, I was just at a masters meet today and met an ex-RMSC swimmer who told me about David. I'm so saddened by this. But, in a comforting way, it was so nice to hear that David was leading a fulfilling life with purpose and mission. And he married Leigh, whom I remember well from our swim days. What a beautiful and inspiring family. I hope you are well, and thank you for writing this memorial piece about our old friend.