Friday, November 10, 2006

Bringing Out Our Dead

The Dead
The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats
of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,

which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

by Billy Collins

Consistently, the bathrooms at funeral homes are the cleaniest and the least encumbered with sentimentality of any bathrooms you'll be visiting in your lifetime. The latter characteristic is a peculiar one for me, because if there's one public bathroom I'd expect sentimentality it would be that in a place associated with tissues, deep breaths and sighs, labored breathing, and uncontrollable tears. Perhaps the lack of the cloying art and knick-knacks is very deliberate. The funeral home bathroom is the only room in the house allowing anyone to be in a private and lockable place. These utilitarian rooms must contain as many heartfelt outpourings and tear stains as any Catholic confessional. The funeral home bathroom offers your only privacy for not only bodily but, more importantly, spiritual relief. The mirror in the room is strongly bolted to the wall so as to absorb the weight of never-ending sadness it views, with each successive occupant.

We had been at one such funeral home on Wednesday, in the Alexandria, VA area. An uncle had died, ending a drawn out struggle with cancer. Upon arrival, we repaired to a bathroom to spruce up and splash some awakening water in our faces. We checked the mirror for appropriate face settings. The image stared back, sadness etching in from the background until our faces were in full pallor mode. Opening the bathroom door was a task now as we were burdened with the weight of the previous visitors' emotions along with our own.

For a long time I could not come to grips with the feeling of sadness that swept over me whenever I went to a funeral. For the funerals of known relatives or close friends' parents, the heaviness was understandable. However, for some funerals, I had never met or I had exchanged only a minimum of words with some of the people whose funeral I was attending. I'd assumed that the funeral was for this one person, this one body that I hardly recognized. It took me a while to realize that each funeral may have 20-100 attendees who are alive, but a geometric progression of that number of attendees no longer with us. And it was we who had brought these dead people along. It was the cumulative weight (Is 21 Grams the correct weight of each emotional departure?) of previous funeral headliners that filled our sack of sadness.
But isn't that at least one aspect of what funerals are about? Sharing our goodbyes for the body at rest and joining that person with all of the bodies we've given our final salutations to in the past. Each funeral has us bringing out our own personal dead. Our dead parents. Our long gone relatives. Why, even the dead who we never saw but who were woven into family lore since we had first asked our grandmother or mother to tell us stories of our long lineaged families, were there with us. It seemed a miracle we could even stand during the services.

But we did. It was a simple ceremony at a church just down the road from Mt. Vernon. I figure even George may have strolled by the casket; he was always interested in the company he'd keep.

What an interesting observation, and beautifully rendered (even if I did hear the Monty Python script running in the background). ;-)
Quite lovely indeed.

Lyle Lovette's Since the Last TIme immeidately popped into my head while reading this, immediately followed by Family Reserve:

But I feel them watching
And I see them laughing
And I hear them singing along.
I started reading "My name is Red" by Orhan Pamuk yesterday and it begins with a dead person talking to the reader... Strange feeling.
I've felt similarly about weddings, and the near-eternal hopes that are attached to them. Especially as some of my friends have taken a second or third trip down the aisle, these expectations and the emotional weight they carry just seem to get a little heavier each time.
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