Funerals are not supposed to be funny.
If last night's benefit at the Washington Hebrew Congregation for the St. Francis Center had a slightly quirky quality, blame it on two ministers with -- shall we say -- a positive approach to both life and death.
"It's fun, in a macabre sort of way, when ministers get together and swap funeral stories," said Robert Fulghum, a retired Unitarian minister better known as the best-selling author of "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Fulghum was swapping stories with the Rev. William Wendt, the beloved founder of the center, who is retiring after 15 years.
Wendt was honored by the crowd of 1,400 last night for his ground-breaking work counseling the dying and bereaved and his no-nonsense approach to the subject. Like the time he went to John Hechinger asking him to design a do-it-yourself coffin that could double as a coffee table. "His theory being to get used to that plain pine box and remove the fear and mystery of the inevitable," Hechinger told the audience. "Can you believe it?"
The idea never caught on, but Hechinger and Wendt became fast friends and Friday morning tennis buddies. "Most tennis players, before serving, ask the question, 'Are you ready?' " said Hechinger. "Bill Wendt says, 'Are you prepared?' "
To send Wendt off in style, the center brought in Fulghum, who has sold more than 6 million copies of his essays -- the only author to simultaneously hold the No. 1 and 2 (for "It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It") spots on the hardcover bestseller list and No. 1 on the paperback list.
His homespun anecdotes -- with the kind of lines that end up on needlepoint pillows -- have made him a hot property on the lecture circuit. Organizers of the benefit had to book him a year in advance. "It's awfully hard to say no to the good things," he said.
Last night Fulghum told about the VFW troop who crashed a funeral (with a stripper in tow) to give their buddy a final rifle salute, about the guy who wanted "If Only I Could Get Through This Week" on his tombstone, and about the first funeral he ever performed: He tossed an urnful of ashes out a plane window -- only to have them blow right back in. "The final dust of Harry covered the pilot, the widow, me and the cockpit," he admitted. "Nothing in the minister's manual covered it." The plane landed, he borrowed a vacuum cleaner and sent the vacuum bag full of Harry home with the widow.
Nobody laughed harder than Wendt, who has spent the past 15 years trying to get people to treat death as a natural and life-affirming subject.
"When I travel on airplanes, the person next to me will ask, 'What do you do?' " he said. "I say, 'I'm in death and dying,' and they don't talk to me anymore -- which is wonderful because I get to read."
Wendt, 70, hasn't had much time for reading. He served as a fighter pilot during World War II and an inner-city priest in New York City before coming to Washington in 1961. While at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, Wendt led a group of Episcopal priests on a civil rights march to Mississippi, invited black activists to speak at his church and was censured by the Diocese of Washington for insubordination when he hired a woman priest to be his assistant. In 1975, he founded the center to fight what he considered inadequate attention to the ill and dying.
Last night's benefit raised $80,000 for the St. Francis illness and bereavement counseling programs. With the center firmly established, Wendt is leaving Washington to serve as a parish priest in the West Indies, where he plans to build a retreat, write books and scuba dive.
"I always said I was an impatient Christian," he said, "but I'm mellowing."