On Wednesday, May 20th, 2015, a visitation gathering and service were held at Nieberg Midwood Memorial Chapel, Coney Island, for Seth Kushner and he was laid to rest at New Montefiore Cemetery in West Babylon. There were as many people present paying their respects as could fit in the chapel.
At most gatherings, whether weddings, celebrations, or funerals, there's a certain hesitation and clustering of groups of people, but walking into the visitation for Seth Kushner before the service, there was an unusual dynamic sense of people in motion even though the visiting room was quite crowded, which I realized after a few minutes was because this was actually an entire community pulled together in one place. Most of the people gathered knew each other, so it was just a matter of managing to greet everyone and have a few moments with each contemporary, which meant staying in constant circulation.
The synagogue chapel filled quietly, and then filled some more, and then continued to be filled until the standing room, too, was taken. The stone walls and rough-hewn rock of the altar were softened by warm light and gave the sense that we were closed in together, that was some kind of massively subscribed conspiracy to gather at this time. The traces of shock and surprise, for those attending, though, were visible everywhere. For a man who was seriously ill for over a year, Seth Kushner has so suspended peoples' disbelief in his own mortality that there was still a feeling of impact three days after his passing, as if the dust hadn't even settled on the event.
For that reason, the thoughts that friends and family shared, the tributes to Seth, were that much more immediate, conversational, and brutally honest, in my opinion. Other funeral services I've been to now seem lacking in this quality of direct communication among the people gathered. We celebrated Seth as if he was in the room, since he still felt like he was. Another thing that may have made the gathering and speeches seem surreal to many of Seth's creative friends is that, in a few instances, they felt like one of the many spoken word events Seth took part in or attended. Events where people performed prose or read aloud from projected comics.
Indeed, one of the centerpieces of the event was a reading by Seth's close friend Dean Haspiel from the final chapter of Seth's autobiographical comic Shmuck (one of his final projects) where he recounts meeting, at long last, his wife Terra and the thoughts and feelings the event elicited in him about life. Though we didn't have the comic's images projected to observe the artwork, many of those in the room (perhaps as much as 50% of the guests) would have read some of his Schmuck comics previously, and been quite familiar with the chapters of the series that have culminated in a forthcoming graphic novel. In fact, the portion that Haspiel read, called "Journey's End" has not yet appeared in print, but will be in the collected volume. Seth didn't read very many of his own comics aloud, though he certainly could do it. Instead, he'd often goad Dean Haspiel or fellow studiomate Christa Cassano into reading for him, so it was even more familiar to hear Haspiel reading from Schmuck for the Brooklyn and Manhattan-based comics community. It was easy to half expect Seth to be gleefully watching from the audience or taking pictures of the event.
Other speeches included reminiscences from Seth's Rabbi, some from his mentor Howard Wallach ,as well as from Seth's uncle Stephen Kushner (who played an even larger role in Seth's life after Seth's father's untimely death). Others who spoke were Seth's cousin India Kushner, and some of his close childhood and high school friends like Martin Cuevas, Gene Kogan, Gene Bresler, and Carlos Molina. Seth's uncle gave an emotive picture of the ways in which his nephew had had a "good life", living life to its "fullest" on a daily basis, something many of us have already remarked on about Seth. This was certainly one of his defining features–it's fair to call him a man of action as well as of words. He had a running tabulation of projects going at all times, switching between writing, photography, scouting locations, and more commercial work sometimes several times a day. A typical mode of encountering Seth in Hang Dai Studios where he worked on creative projects, was to find him bathed in the glow of his all-powerful large and flat-screened computer, perched on his tinted blue glass and chrome desk, flanked by a little peanut gallery of assorted oddities in figures ranging behind him on the window sill like a protective posse. But there was one thing about Seth's desk that never changed–it exuded an air of "get busy and quit slacking". He must have somehow transferred his personality into his work space.
Seth's mentor Howard Wallach spoke about Seth's "Schmuck" years as a kid trying to find his way in life, his group of friends, his Beavis and Butthead impressions, and then the gradual move, a mysterious thing, from being a schmuck to becoming a mensch. He suggested, to great laughter, that the turning point for Seth might have been when he deigned to put his 30,000 item comic collection in storage and convince Terra to marry him. Seth's obsessive love for comics, and more widely for pop culture, was a recurring theme throughout the service, and the laughter the observations prompted were always very knowing. But it was also very strongly felt and agreed upon that, as Wallach observed, Seth had reached the position of mensch at a young age due to his ability to serve and live for others, a role Seth also discovered through his greatest "passion", his son Jackson.
There were many tearful moments interspersed throughout the tributes being made, an alternation between celebration and grief on a nearly moment to moment basis for those gathered.
India Kushner, who many of Seth's friends had met through her interest in photography and attendance at gatherings like Seth's 40th birthday, a massive gathering of friends held in a real Speakeasy, read a poem she had written to Seth. She also shared her chagrin and gratitude for the experience of interning with Seth as a photographer, which meant going on shoots with him. There she saw him "at his best", and fully on top of his game, charged with enthusiasm for his subject matter. For those who had ever been on a shoot with him, and there were many present, this rang very true. There was a kind of ineffable quality, an energy and wild light that would take hold of him on important projects. It was the kind of energy that made you step back and let the genius do his work.
Carlos Molina addressed a very moving speech to Seth, taken in part from one of Seth's favorite films, The Dark Knight Rises and drawn from Dickens. In closing, Martin Cuevas spoke, using a series of quotes to express his farewell to his friend, and that pretty much brought the house down, particular the final speech as taken from Spock's farewell to James Kirk in The Wrath of Khan. As a film many of his generation saw in their formative years, and also a Star Trek film scene that speaks most intimately of the deep friendship between Kirk and Spock, the resonance for the audience was profound.
At each stage of the events held in Seth's honor, from the visitation, to the service, to the burial and later, the beginning of Shiva, there were definite long pauses. No one was particularly anxious to move on from these moments that kept Seth with us as much as allowing him to go. This was an incredibly tight knit event for the comics community due to the nature of Seth's wide and deep friendships that were actually responsible for many of the subsequent friendships between members of the group. Many of the people who attended might have owed several of their closest, and probably lifelong friendships to one of Seth's projects or simply through knowing him. That's a radical idea if you think about it, that Seth actually played a significant role in creating the community that was so evident at his service. He would have been delighted by that, and, of course, it also speaks to his long-lasting impact on our lives and on the community.
For those who were able, they took part in a journey out to West Babylon for the burial service. Wednesday was a warm, but briskly windy and very bright May day as everyone arrived at the same cemetery where Seth's father Joel is buried. A large group of people attended at the cemetery, where prayers were read and virtually every person present, from the youngest to the most venerable, took part in a scattering of earth. A number of Seth's closest male friends took over completing that duty, and again, there was a long period before anyone felt ready to leave.
For those visiting Seth's family for Shiva, they travelled back to Brooklyn and had a warm welcome, as well as the chance to see Seth's rather idiosyncratic collection of impressive original comic art. Many of the pieces of framed art were from his own graphic novel Schmuck, but there was a definite favoritism for Sandman evident, including a piece depicting Dream by David Mack dated 2001. For many it felt like Seth might return at any moment and give a tour of his graphic novel collection. That is, if you could see them behind the action figures. There were, among many others, several Kabuki-related books and a recent read, Scott McCloud's The Sculptor, which Seth had been very impressed by. As the evening rolled in, more and more people arrived to share their stories about Seth, and collaboratively filling in details that they might not have known about an intricately multifaceted man. A man who was known, in the end, most for his warmth and determination in every area of his life.
But if he had his say, Seth, as a dedicated fan of Breaking Bad, would probably add "Remember My Name" to his memorial.
Donations to help Seth's wife Terra and their son Jackson during a time when they are dealing with a lot of medical care debt would be very welcome. You can find their funding page here.