A few weeks ago, Leslie’s grandmother died and I went to my first funeral. Awkward as it is to confess, I was a little bit excited to go. I hadn’t been to any of my own grandparents’ funerals. Three of them died before I was born, and when the last one went I was deemed too young to be taken to the service. Somehow, I always felt lacking, having never been to one. As if there were some secret truth about mortality that was only openly shared during this mysterious ceremony. So while poor Leslie was grappling with sincerely difficult emotions, I was mostly just looking forward to my first anthropological peek at the burial custom. I wanted to participate in every element of the ritual, the way I had seen it in movies, in the hope that it would somehow bring me closer to an understanding of death. I got a weird thrill going up to the attic to find that rarely worn black suit. I put it on and stood in front of the full-length mirror, adjusting my cuffs and practicing a somber face of commiseration. I don’t really know what I was expecting. Some kind of release? Catharsis? If nothing else, I guess I thought that adding a new experience to my own life would make me feel that much further away from dying myself.
But the funeral was a rip-off. Leslie’s grandmother had been cremated and put into a small, marble box that sat on a pedestal at the front of the room. The little box didn’t look like it contained a human being. And nobody acted like it contained a human being. Nobody moaned or wailed or threw themselves desperately onto the floor. Nobody rushed to the box’s side to weep over it or beg it for forgiveness. In fact, nobody touched the box or even addressed it. Everyone sat in a respectful, unanimated quiet. There was only a handful of attendees and most of them weren’t even wearing dark colors. Leslie’s mom’s husband said a few kind words about what a nice lady Leslie’s grandmother had been and how glad he was that he’d had the chance to know her. But Leslie didn’t say anything. Leslie’s mom didn’t say anything. Leslie’s grandmother had run out of time to say anything. I was listening to three whole generations of eerie silence. The clergywoman who officiated didn’t know Leslie’s grandmother and didn’t have anything profound or insightful to add. She quoted an assortment of biblical passages that were clearly standard for the occasion and cobbled them together with a few banal and patronizingly generic observations of her own. Then she concluded and announced that the procession would now be departing for the cemetery.
The drive was the one part of the event that lived up to most of its cinematic billing. I had been afraid that we would find out that the hearse was reserved for full-sized caskets, but no such downgrading took place. Each car had been fitted with an identifying flag, and there was no mistaking what we represented as we snaked slowly through the town in single file behind the hearse. It was an appropriately grey and drizzly day, and the people on the sidewalks dutifully lowered their heads as we passed. When we arrived at the cemetery, we gathered under a small, temporary shelter next to a tarp-covered hole in the ground. The clergywoman read another bible passage and then quickly bid us good day. We left before the actual interment. Another cheat. Nobody clung to the box, trying to stop it from being buried. Nobody threw symbolic dirt. I don’t even remember anyone crying. We just left the job undone and went to lunch, where we exchanged an hour of low-toned small talk over meatballs and macaroni salad. Leslie seemed grateful for my strength, which was really just a confused lack of understanding. I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t screaming out in desperate, primal fear. Maybe approaching the concept of death is like going into shock. It’s too painful to actually feel. Like they say about extreme physical trauma.
Needless to say, I didn’t discover any important new clues to the mystery of human expiration. The event didn’t provide me with the closure that it seems to advertise. I came out of it still stuck with the feeling that I didn’t really ‘know’ death. I’ve known some people who died, but they weren’t really people I’d known for years or people who’d played large roles in the story of my life. There was a girl I’d slept with for a few weeks, and a guy I’d played music with a handful of times, a person I worked with at a job, and a kid who went to my junior high. And those passings affected me, but not intimately enough to make me feel like I’d really understood or experienced anything. In truth, their deaths just made me wish I’d known them better than I actually had, so I could participate more fully, more genuinely, in their mourning. They made me feel somehow inadequate. Recently, a friend of mine showed me some pictures he’d taken of his mother in the moments just after she had died. Her face howled out to me in frozen terror. I hadn’t known her, but I felt accused, as though she could see my helpless ignorance through the holes in her contorted mask. I tried to imagine my own mother’s face with the last throes of life stretched into it and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t begin to conceive of how I would feel if my mother no longer existed. I don’t even want to write about it.
I can tell from Leslie, and from my friend with the photos, and from my other friends who have lost loved ones, that when it hits you that close it’s a different experience. But it’s still not an experience that I’ve had. And apparently, it’s not one that can be soaked up vicariously. Instead of relating to it directly, I am left to bemoan my lack of proximity to the real truth of it, my feckless inability to fully invest, my chickenshit dearth of anything meaningful to say about bereavement. The best I’ve got is to complain that I sincerely wish I felt more than I do. I wish I wasn’t so emotionally uneducated about the most fundamental fact of human existence. What can I possibly say for the dead who have gone? Or even the dead not yet to go? Aren’t we all the walking dead? Like Shrodinger’s Cat, aren’t we all somehow both alive and dead at the same time? At the very least, we can all be divided into the dead and the dying, the one group no longer capable of hearing words and the other facing a certain future that words can do nothing to solve. Our words themselves are either dead or in the process of dying away. I mourn for all of our novels and letters, all our notions and decisions, all our analysis of the mutual condition.
Even in one short lifetime, it is possible to witness the next generation coming to the conclusion that our efforts have not decided much of anything. They will reject and replace our music, our art, our medicine, our science. What is kept will only serve as curiosities, as tokens of nostalgia rather than objects that function as they were intended without irony. How many people can I name from the 1800s? A hundred? Fewer? The 1700s? The 1600s? It starts getting rough pretty quickly. There are several centuries of which I cannot produce the name of a single citizen. From 1600 back to zero, I can only come up with a handful, total. The point is that we are not being remembered. Or kept. The numbers etched into the stones in the graveyards don’t reach back very far. Even the catacombs, filled to their ceilings with anonymous bones, only cover the last few centuries (and spottily, at that).
And even when our actions are well documented, our remembrances don’t outlast our bones by very long. However happy I am that I haven’t yet been forced to face the grief of losing my family, I know that we all lose each other eventually. And I haven’t the foggiest idea how to effectively prepare for that. I don’t know, for example, how to go about honoring my parents, or using my life to give continued meaning to theirs. I’m afraid it’s unavoidable that I will simply fail them and that I, in turn, will be failed. Perhaps that’s the only real secret to know about the nature of death: that it just comes and keeps coming, without any special, secret, meaningful truth coming behind it. There might not be anything more to it than that. Despite all my fantasies about stem cell research and cryogenics, and regardless of how well I do or don’t know death, eventually death will know me. And when that happens, I hope I get a big, dramatic funeral. I want people to be reminded by my demise that their own is on its way. And I want them to freak out. Yell, cry, throw something. Please. It’s what I would have wanted. But I guess, since we’re all dying anyway, I can just start freaking out for myself. Right now. All the time. This is everyone’s funeral. We are present for our own.