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?)

A Stranger’s Death, Made Familiar

On Monday, as I walked to campus to begin a full day of teaching, I came across–outside a high school that abuts our campus–one of those dreaded memorials to the too-young-dead: black and white and color photographs, flickering candles, bouquets of flowers, notes of affection and remembrance and disbelief, some printed, some handwritten, and lastly, most poignantly, sobbing,disconsolate girls, resting their heads on the shoulders of their equally grief-stricken friends. I stopped and read some of the notes; I looked at the photographs. There she was, a young teen-aged girl, gleefully, artlessly, posing with friends and family, sometimes in a bus, sometimes in a park, sometimes hugging girlfriends, sometimes mugging for the camera, sometimes caught off-guard, sometimes preening, sometimes shy, sometimes dressed to the gills, sometimes lazily casual. It was all there, the bare reminders of a life now over. Around me, some students stopped and stared and read; some  stayed, some moved on quickly. There were uneasy glances cast backward at this reminder of the mortality of one of their cohort.

I read her name; the first name was common enough, but she was still a stranger.  But not utterly so. She had a name, she had a face; her presence in this world was visible through the reactions of her friends, through this public memorial that had confronted me and made my weekday extraordinary. I felt a prickliness in my eyes; some irritation had manifested itself and forced, in response, from my ever sensitive optical apparatus, a secretion of moisture to provide instant relief.

This morning, as I walked to campus again, a block or so away from the high school crossing, my pace slowed. I wondered if I would see the same memorial again. I remembered the girl’s name–incompletely, the spelling half-forgotten. I searched for it on the internet. My first try was unsuccessful; on the second, I added ‘Brooklyn’ and tried again. I found her: she had been fifteen years old, killed in an accident on a New Jersey highway while traveling with her parents. The family car had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer. Her parents and her sibling were grievously injured; she had been ‘pronounced dead on the scene.’ The picture of devastation was now complete. A family ruined, left to grieve, to mourn the premature ending of their nearest and dearest.

The news article that had come up on my search was utterly nondescript; the kind I see on a daily basis, listing the dead somewhere, killed somehow. Perhaps by murder, perhaps by war, perhaps by natural disaster. But that memorial, those pictures, those notes, those sobbing students, those candles, those flowers, they had made this death–of a complete stranger–that much more familiar.

I walked on. There it was again, the altar of remembrance, now moved to the entrance of the school, next to a legend that spoke of how she would never be forgotten. I stopped again, looked at more pictures, read some more notes. Then, I felt that same irritation in my eyes and I moved on.