The Mixed Pleasures Of Attending Our Own Memorial Service

Wanting to attend our own funerals, our own memorial services, is a fantasy with a long and distinguished pedigree. (As is the associated fantasy of wanting to read our own obituaries.) With good reason. If things have worked out well, many of our friends and family members will be there, hopefully all well-dressed. Importantly, we will be the focus of attention, the center-show, at most times. Some folks will occasionally deign to speak to each other on topics that do not directly pertain to us, but we will at least feature front and center in any formal addresses delivered from the podium of choice. Perhaps there will be photographs of us, all showcasing our ‘best sides’ and our best memories; an artful act of editing that will show our lives in the best possible way, constructing a narrative that will suggest all went well, we only made friends, we always looked happy, we went to wonderful places, we ate great food, we did great work–you get the picture (literally.)

And then there is the matter of the eulogies. Ah, what sweet joy. To hear our friends speak glowingly and tearfully about us, to hear them recount tales and anecdotes in which we come off so well, in which even our faults are beautifully incorporated into a larger picture of goodness–who would want to forego such an opportunity? Some of our creative friends might even have produced several drafts of the eulogies they deliver, thus ensuring a carefully crafted final product that will do the most justice to a description of our lives and our virtues. If the logistical details have been sorted out, there will be good food and drink, and once the effects of those kick in, and some of the tears have been wiped away, there will be, among your friends, much merriment and conviviality. We might even hear more stories about ourselves; more clever punch lines that we delivered on many a memorable occasion in the past. It will be the kind of party we often wanted to throw, but were never quite able to pull off; it was too hard to get everyone together in one place. Now, we don’t even have to clean up.

But we should be careful to not tarry too long and we should slip away as the service and the after-party winds down. For we might notice, much as we did as the attendees gathered and talked among themselves as the services kicked off, that our friends and families have lives that will persist and continue even after our deaths; once the service is over, and as dispersals take place in the parking lot and lobby, we will begin to fade ever so imperceptibly from view. The world awaits; we had our turn on the stage, exit left directions have been issued, and now we must depart. To delay our departure will only be to receive further evidence of what we fear most of all: our erasure from this world. Other forms of existence await us hopefully: perhaps as memories and continuing influences in the lives of those we loved. Those will have to do for now. (And ever?)

Broadchurch’s Grieving Mother And Our Reactions To ‘Victims’

Viewers of the BBC’s Broadchurch are subjected to a trial of sorts: we have to watch, in some excruciating detail, the reactions of parents, and in particular, a mother, to the violent death of a beloved child–at the hands of a malevolent, unknown actor. Paying close attention to our reactions to what we see and hear is instructive.

In Broadchurch Beth Latimer’s reactions to the death of her son, Danny, cover a wide range: there is incoherent grief and bewilderment and shock, and then, unsurprisingly, rage and resentment too. (Her husband’s infidelity, disclosed as a result of the homicide investigation adds further insult to injury; it is a miracle that the couple is still together at the end of the second season. This is especially so because we are aware of the grim statistics pertaining to the high likelihood of couples separating after the loss of a child.)

Beth’s anger–sometimes directed at her husband, sometimes at the pace of the investigation, and therefore, the homicide detectives, sometimes at other residents of their town, and later, at the wife of the murder suspect–is volatile, threatening to immolate those who come within its ambit. The viewer–like those in the show who come into contact with an angry Beth–instinctively shrinks back; this is not a rage to be trifled with. In the second season, in particular, Beth’s rage at DS Ellie Miller becomes particulary pointed, and at one stage, veers into unkindness and ungraciousness. My deployment of these latter adjectives should give some indication of the reaction her rage may provoke in viewers: we start to become impatient with Beth and her grieving.

Indeed; as Beth’s rage continues, we start to lose some sympathy for her; we find ourselves wishing she’d find it within her heart to forgive and forget; to ‘move on,’ even if only for just a bit. The moment we do so, of course, we reprimand ourselves: How dare we tell a grieving mother to get over it? How dare we set up a timeline for an appropriate period of grieving? How could we possibly attempt to circumscribe the nature of how Beth expresses her sense of loss? And so even as we reproach ourselves, we acknowledge the conflicted nature of our reactions to her.

These reactions are illuminative. We feel sympathy and perhaps some empathy for a ‘victim’ but these sentiments are limited; these limits become all too apparent when the ‘victim’ is not a passive recepient of her fate. It would be far easier to tolerate Beth’s reactions if she did not rage so and merely retreated into a grim, brooding silence, though even then, were she to continue to interact with others in a noncommittal, sullen, uncooperative fashion, we might find ourselves tempted, a little too easily, to tell her to ‘snap out of it.’  The uncomfortable truth here is that the ‘victim’ makes us uncomfortable; we are reminded of the ever-present contingency of our lives, of our success in life’s sweepstakes, of the fragility of fortune; ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ is not an easy reminder to take on board; we wish the ‘victim’ would cease and desist, thus pushing away these grim reminders from our awareness.

These considerations are relevant to the reactions often on display in political discourse, in the reactions made to those protesting past wrongs and demanding redressal. Sympathy and empathy are possible, and sometimes even extended, but they are not easy to sustain; the protester bids us face uncomfortable truths we would much rather not deal with. The protests grate; we find faults with their form and content all too easily; too loud, too long, too shrill, the list goes on. Pipe down, move on, get over it; admonitions spring easily to our lips. After all, if we could find reprimands for a grieving mother, when her cause for grief lies so close by in space and time, then what chance do we have when confronting those who are protesting injustices and crimes which began a long time ago? Even if those have continued into the present? Their vintage provenance seems to drag them into the past, and that is all the excuse we need to justify our impatient and irate reaction. Enough already; keep moving; my resources are limited, and I can spare no more for you.

If the personal is political, then we should not be surprised to find, in revealing reactions like these, glimpses of the many subterrenean forces that animate our political stances.

Gabriel Rockhill On Never Dying

Over at the New York Times’ The Stone, in ‘Why We Never DieGabriel Rockhill writes:

Our existence has numerous dimensions, and they each live according to different times. The biological stratum…is in certain ways a long process of demise — we are all dying all the time, just at different rhythms. Far from being an ultimate horizon beyond the bend, death is a constitutive feature of the unfolding of biological life….I am confronting my death each day that I live.

Moreover, the physical dimension of existence clearly persists beyond any biological threshold, as the material components of our bodies mix and mingle in different ways with the cosmos. The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made or writings like this one. There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had…on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.

[O]ur physical, artifactual and psychosocial lives….intertwine and merge with the broader world out of which we are woven….Authentic existence is perhaps less about boldly confronting the inevitable reality of our own finitude than about recognizing and cultivating the multiple dimensions of our lives….They carry on in the physical world, in the material and cultural vestiges we leave, as well as in the psychological and social effects we have on those around us.

I’m fond of saying that my parents ‘live on,’ that they are ‘still alive to me.’ By this I do not mean that my parents are biologically manifest in this world. Nor am I ‘merely’ speaking metaphorically; rather, I think I’m deploying ‘alive,’ and ‘live’ in ways that are sensitive to the multiple meanings and dimensions of our existence that Rockhill is alluding to. One way in which I understood this dimension is based on a experience I had during my boarding school years. In those days, I missed my mother terribly; I was away from home for nine months. One day, while walking through campus, I looked up to see one of the glorious sunsets that my campus’ mountainous location facilitated; as I admired the exquisite display put on my for enjoyment, I suddenly felt comforted by the fact that the same sun shone down on my mother, hundreds of miles away at my home. At that moment, the physical distance between the two of us felt insignificant; my mother was not ‘biologically’ or ‘physically’ present, but she was present in other ways. In memory, in thought, in a placement in my life that could only be described by the word ‘presence.’ She was no longer a ghost without substance. That perception of her presence in my life has not changed with her death: she influences my actions and thoughts; she informs my various decisions, moral and political; she serves as inspiration and moral guidepost. Her letters to my father, the books she read; these continue to inform me of who she was and the life she lived. My memories of her animate my relationships with my wife and my daughter; they provide me guidance in those vital spheres. My evaluative sense of myself is often based in large part on reconciling her perceptions of me with my perceptions of myself. I could, with little difficulty, make similar assessments of the presence of my father in my life.

My parents are not non-existent; they are biologically dead, but they are not ‘artifactually’ or ‘psychosocially’ so.

Francine Prose On The Consolations Of Post-Apocalyptic Literature

In reviewing Margaret Atwood‘s Stone Mattress: Nine Tales Francine Prose makes a pair of perceptive remarks in her conclusion.

First,

[T]book offers none of the peculiar comforts and reassurances of such post-apocalyptic novels as Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It denies us the glorious fantasy of flaming out en masse instead of, so much less dramatically, in a bed surrounded by a few grieving relatives; it withholds the consolation of leaving a ruined world–and being spared the certainty that life will go on without us, as if we had never existed. [link added]

And then,

These stories lack the hopeful possibilities lurking within the dystopian novel’s cautionary subtext: since the horrors of the fictive future are usually the result of some existing practice or system, there’s always the chance that, perhaps inspired by the novelist’s warnings, we may yet mend our ways and avert the grisly future the writer has imagined for us.

Prose’s second remark is more commonly made by those writing about post-apocalyptic literature: in essence, these works are not just morality plays, castigating us, informing us of our earth-destroying venality; rather, they offer a blueprint of sorts on how the future may yet be averted. (Marge Piercy‘s Woman On The Edge of Time offers a converse treatment: a traveler from an all-too easily imagined dystopian present travels forward in time to “a utopian world in which a number of goals of the political and social agenda of the late sixties and early seventies radical movements have been fulfilled. Environmental pollution, homophobia, racism, phallogocentrism, class-subordination, consumerism, imperialism, and totalitarianism no longer exist.”)

Her first remark cuts a little deeper. We find post-apocalyptic literature provides the most ‘peculiar comfort’ of all: if we are to die, let us at least die in a world which is dying with us, taking with it everything we held near and dear. We fear death not just because of the uncertainty of the void that awaits, but also because we know that we leave a life and a world behind–our traces soon to be overwritten by the lives of others. How comforting to think that all will be effaced at the same instant. (I wonder if, when lovers or family or friends face death together, the fact of their togetherness provides some comfort in their last dying moments.)

There is yet another dimension to the comforts of post-apocalyptic works: they are escapist, offering fantasy worlds in which an ordinary life suddenly becomes extraordinary, granted an opportunity to redeem itself with unconventional acts of courage, imagination, and fortitude. Fathers step up to the plate; mothers become fiercer; children mature quickly; cowards become heroes. Some of the eagerness with which we lap up news about impending disasters is underwritten by the ‘hope’ that we will now be delivered from our mundane lives into a proving ground of sorts, where hitherto unknown and unimagined personal qualities will become manifest. This is not a new observation: the impatience which greets delays in the declaration of war–and the resultant exultation when it does finally ensue–has been similarly analyzed.

Uncomfortable Conversations: Children And The Bad News

On Friday morning, I finally faced the kind of problem I had heard many other parents make note of: how do you talk about the horrifying in the presence of children? On Thursday night, I had gone to sleep after reading the news reports on the murders in Nice, and on waking up, wanted to discuss them with my wife (who had gone to bed earlier than I had, tired and worn out after a long day’s work and then, an exhausting putting-to-bed session with our daughter.) But mornings are occupied with preparing our daughter to get ready for ‘camp’; and I did not want to initiate conversation about Nice with my wife with my daughter listening.

There was, after all, no way to sanitize the descriptions of what had just happened in Nice. I would have to say something like “someone ran over people in France in a truck, killing men, women, and children.” My daughter has given enough indications, recently, of understanding what ‘killing’ means–bizarrely enough, children’s story books involving animals and hunters have introduced her to this concept. She has also been introduced to notion of someone ‘dying’–via a pair of recent conversations about safety on the roads and the death of a beloved pet belonging to my brother’s family. She probably would not be able to figure out the full horror of the killings in Nice from my quick description of it to my wife, but I was still nervous that enough would get through to confuse her severely just before she left for the day.

Besides, I did not want to just stop at informing my wife of the news: I want to fulminate, to agonize, to express shock and anxiety at what seemed to be yet another installment in an insanity slowly building to a world-wide crescendo–and none of that was going to be ‘suitable’ for my child. Over and above the cuss words, my daughter would hear the fear and worry in our voices–and perhaps even sense it in our bodies from the expressions on our faces and our body language–and be driven to anxiousness and insecurity herself. And so I waited till she was gone, artfully avoiding a moment of confrontation that will not be postponed too long.

There is little I can do to protect my daughter–my most precious ‘possession’–from the world she is preparing to enter. I agonized over the decision to have a child in the first place, an unsurprising reaction to the prospect of bringing up innocents in a world apparently going to hell in a handbasket. Days like yesterday introduce a severe cognitive dissonance then: what have I done? Perhaps the only consolation I can offer myself is that last week I took my daughter up to the Atlantic coast in Maine, where she saw sights  that will hopefully retain their vividness as she grows up, providing an acute counterpoint of natural beauty to the ugly man-made horrors  that will continue to force themselves into her consciousness. At those moments of remembrance of the pleasures of childhood, I hope she will forgive me for exposing her to all else this world holds in store for her.

Chaucer’s Knight As Stoic Philosopher

In How to Read and Why (Scribner, New York, 2001, p. 281), Harold Bloom invokes ‘The Knight’s Tale‘ from Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales and writes:

The Knight sums up Chaucer’s ironic ethos in one grim couplet:

It is ful fair a man to bere hym evene
For al day meeteth men at unset stevene

Bloom continues:

My friend the late Chaucerian Talbot Donaldson paraphrased this superbly:

It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.

Among the most haunting passages in Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking (Vintage, 2007)–which describes the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, from a sudden heart attack at home–are the ones on its very first page:

Life changes fast
Life changes in the instant
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

Didion writes that she considered editing the lines above so that they would read as follows:

Life changes in the instant
The ordinary instant

At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what happened, I considered adding those words, ‘the ordinary instant.’ I saw immediately that there would be no need of adding the word ‘ordinary,’ because there would be no forgetting it; the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the remarkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way from home work–happy, successful, health–and then, gone”….In the midst of life we are in death, Episcopalians say at the graveside.

Rare is the remarkable disaster that provides advance intimation; even the most drawn out of all deadly diseases begins with the most innocent signals–perhaps the test result obtained during a routine medical exam, perhaps the lump that makes its presence felt during a routine palpitation of the skin. All around us, misfortune stalks the unwary, even as we imagine it will pass us by today, and continue to do so in the future.If every day is the first of the rest of our lives–an inspirational homily we are only to happy to dish out to others–then it is an elementary deduction that one such day will be the last too. But this is an inference we are often unwilling to draw until it is time to have its grim conclusion forced upon us.

Chaucer’s Knight then, is bidding us be good Stoics, fully prepared, with a kind of sensitive indifference, for this world’s eventualities, not all of which bring glad tidings to our door. It is the oldest lesson of all, one which we are destined to have imparted to us again and again, for the facts about the nature of our existence that it brings to our attention are not easily accepted.

Lessons From A Vision Of A Funeral Pyre

My grandfather’s funeral was the first I attended of a significant family member. It was also the first time I witnessed a cremation, that fiery return to the ashes–and possibly eternal cycles of becoming and passing away–which signals the end of a Hindu’s life. As we prepared for it, I was aware, even through the haze of my grieving for a man who had assumed such a vivid and dominant presence in my life, that I was about to undergo a transformative experience of one kind or the other.

It was not long in forthcoming. After the preliminary prayers had been chanted, and my grandfather’s body wrapped in a white shroud and placed on top of the pyre, my uncle–my grandfather’s eldest surviving son–stepped up and brought a burning taper to it. The wooden logs caught fire quickly and long tongues of flame moved up and through their thickets, rapidly turning into a fierce blaze. I stood on the other side of the pyre; I could see my grandfather’s feet pointing toward me, suddenly exposed, sticking out from the under the sheet that covered the rest of his body.

As the flames grew, so did the radiant heat, and I took a step backward. As I did so, I noticed that my grandfather’s feet had blackened, charred by the fire that turned skin into soot. And then, abruptly, without notice, the blackened skin peeled, exposing an ivory-white flesh below, which began to melt and drip off the the now exposed bones; a bony, skeletal foot began to emerge. I instinctively winced, and started forward; I wanted to protect my grandfather from this horrible, agonizing, consignment to the flames. He was trapped and helpless; pinned under by the weight of the logs.

I didn’t, of course. There was nothing to protect. My grandfather was gone; he was beyond pain and sensation and feeling and suffering. I was staring at the remnants of his body, now lacking the appropriate relationship to the totality I had called my ‘grandfather.’ It could feel nothing, sense nothing. Old instincts died hard; standing there, in that April heat, as the Central Indian sun beat down on me, I could scarcely believe this all too evident fact.

The pyre continued to blaze; the bones in my grandfather’s feet had now started to crack and crumble under the still raging flames. All around me, a sombre group of family and friends gazed on. I had received news of my grandfather’s worsening health a mere twenty-four hours before; we had dashed to his home by overnight train in an effort to meet him, and on arriving, had learned he had passed away the previous night itself. I had spent the morning in a daze, scarcely believing this larger than life figure was gone, never to return.

But now there was no doubt about it; I had received confirmation that the time had come for my grandfather to ‘return’; this cremation had quickly and efficiently prepared his physical remains for the next stage of their transformation and further utilization in this world’s ongoing becoming.