(The eulogy for three citizens can be found from 3:00 to 10:00.)
I don't know much about Gov. Phil Murphy from the neighboring state of New Jersey -- but I do know he has two admirable assets in a leader: a brain and a heart.
These were amply evident on Thursday when Gov. Murphy spoke about the impact of the pandemic on New Jersey, starting with the horrible facts and then moving into the personal.
In six-plus minutes, he eulogized three residents of New Jersey who had died of the virus.
They were selected as a balanced ticket – a Roman Catholic white man, a black man, and a Jewish woman, who had survived as a 15-year-old in Bergen-Belsen and remained a witness and a teacher, into her 90s.
As he introduced these three pillars of his state, Gov. Murphy used terms often heard at wakes and funerals, invoking some version of an Almighty to bless their hearts, bless their souls.
I doubt that any non-believer, even those allergic to religious presence in public, would be offended by the opening of Gov. Murphy’s own heart. He was feeling the tragedy of losing people, good people, to a killer. By blessing their lives, he was helping all of us feel the humanity of the fallen, and ours.
This is one of the highest callings of a leader, in any field. When David Stern passed recently, many people recalled him as tough negotiator as commissioner of the N.B.A., but I also recalled the day he had to banish a player (Micheal Ray Richardson) for life, for repeated violations of drug policy. Rather than be vindictive, Stern seemed to be feeling deeper emotions as he blurted, “This is tragedy.” He felt it. He made me feel it.
This was leadership from the heart, as was President Obama’s visit to the church in South Carolina where worshippers had been murdered by a man with a gun. The President took a deep breath and sang, a cappella, the first lines of “Amazing Grace.” He called a blessing on all. He made us feel the horror.
Amidst all the legal skirmishes about the presence of religion in public life, leaders often give witness to their faith, sometimes recklessly.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., has insisted on re-opening Liberty University; 78 cases of the coronavirus have since been detected in the immediate area. (Personal note: I covered religion in the late ’70s and knew and liked Falwell’s father. I bet Falwell, Sr., would have had enough sense to listen to medical experts.)
Nancy Pelosi often ascribes her public policies to her Roman Catholic faith. Former vice president Joe Biden and current New York governor Andrew Cuomo – who applies real facts, real logic, in his daily seminars on the plague – are said to bond in their faith.
Meantime, evangelicals ascribe a previously undetected faith to the current president. Preachers told their flock to vote for him in 2016 and I am sure they will again in 2020. He has speculated out loud about the eternal destination of the deceased landmark member of the House, John Dingell of Michigan.
There is no evidence that Donald Trump holds any belief in the goodness, inherent or potential, of others. His worth is measured in the stock market, how much relief money he can slip to his cronies. Life is a battle to make himself look good, pushing the rock uphill with every event. It is all about him.
Gov. Murphy helped us love the lives of the three citizens, as stand-ins for all the others who have fallen in recent weeks. However we felt it, however we expressed it, in religious or secular terms, we knew it was a tragedy.
May the governor have fewer occasions to introduce us to the fallen of his state.
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The transcript of Gov. Murphy’s eulogy for the three citizens:
A separate clip about Margit Feldman:
Holocaust survivor, NJ resident dies of COVID-19, honored by governor
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023