Our Near-Death Experience

Moveen, Ireland — IMAGES of the papal wake dominated the news this week: the dead man’s body vested, mitered, laid out among his people in St. Peter’s Square, blessed with water and incense, borne from one station to the next in a final journey. Such images – along with the idea that millions of people would wait for hours merely for a chance to pass by the body itself – may have given pause to many Americans for whom the presence of the dead at their own funerals has become strangely unfashionable.

For many bereaved Americans, the “celebration of life” involves a guest list open to everyone except the actual corpse, which is often dismissed, disappeared without rubric or witness, buried or burned, out of sight, out of mind, by paid functionaries like me. So the visible presence of the pope’s body at the pope’s wake and funeral strikes many as an oddity, a quaint relic. How “Catholic,” some will say, or how “Italian” or “Polish” or “traditional”; how “lavish” or “expensive” or “barbaric.” Such things were said when Diana, Princess of Wales, died, and when Ronald Reagan did.

In truth, what happened in Rome this week, like what happens in Michigan or Manhattan or Mozambique when one of our own kind dies, is a deeply human event, unique to our species – this going the distance with our dead. Cocker spaniels do not bother with this, nor do rock bass, nor rhododendrons, nor any other thing that lives and dies.

But we do. Wherever our spirits go, or don’t, ours is a species that down the millenniums has learned to deal with death (the idea of the thing) by dealing with the dead (the thing itself) in all the flesh and frailty of the human condition. We process grief by processing the objects of our grief, the bodies of the dead, from one place to the next. We bear mortality by bearing mortals – the living and the dead – to the brink of a changed reality: heaven or Valhalla or whatever is next. We commit and commend them into the nothingness or somethingness, into the presence of God or God’s absence. Whatever afterlife there is or isn’t, human beings have marked their ceasing to be by going to the tomb or the fire or the grave, the holy tree or deep sea, whatever sacred space of oblivion to which we consign our dead. Humans have been doing this for 40,000 years.

I’ve been doing funerals for almost 40.

I came up burying Presbyterians and Catholics, devout and lapsed, born again and backslid. Baptists, Orthodox Christians, an occasional Zen Buddhist and variously observant Jews. For each of these sets, there were infinite subsets. We had right old Calvinists who drank only single malts and were all good Masons and were mad for the bagpipes, just as we had former Methodists who worked their way up the Reformation ladder after they married into money or made a little killing in the market. We had Polish Catholics and Italian ones, Irish and Hispanic and Byzantine, and Jews who were Jews in the way some Lutherans are Lutheran – for births and deaths and first marriages.

My late father, himself a funeral director, schooled me in the local orthodoxies and their protocols as I have schooled my sons and daughter who work with me. There was a kind of comfort, I suppose, in knowing exactly what would be done with you, one’s ethnic and religious identities having established long ago the fashions and the fundamentals for one’s leave-taking. And while the fashions might change, the fundamental ingredients for a funeral were the same: there is someone who has quit breathing forever, some others to whom it apparently matters, and someone else who stands between the quick and dead and says something like “Behold, I show you a mystery” or “Do not be afraid” or “Goodbye.”

Late in the last century more homegrown doxologies became more popular. We boomers, vexed by the elder metaphors of grief and death, wanted to create our own. Everyone was into the available “choices.”

So we started doing more cremations – it made good sense. Folks seemed less “grounded” than their grandparents, more “scattered” somehow. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” replaced “How Great Thou Art.” And if Paul’s Letter to the Romans or the Book of Job was replaced by Omar Khayyam or Emily Dickinson, what harm? After great pain, a formal feeling comes, and rings as true as any sacred text. A death in the family is, as Miss Emily describes it: First – chill – then stupor – then the letting go.

Amid all the high fashions and fashion blunders, the ritual wheel that worked the space between the living and the dead still got us where we needed to go. It made room for the good laugh, the good cry and the power of faith brought to bear on the mystery of mortality. The broken circle within the community of folks who shared blood or geography or belief with the dead was closed again. Someone brought the casseroles, someone brought the prayers, someone brought a shovel or lighted the fire. Everyone was consoled by everyone else. The wheel that worked the space between the living and the dead ran smooth.

For many Americans, however, that wheel is not just broken but off track or in need of reinvention. The loosened ties of faith and family, of religious and ethnic identity, have left them ritually adrift, bereft of custom, symbol, metaphor and meaningful liturgy or language. Times formerly spent in worship or communion are now spent shopping or Web-browsing or otherwise passing time. Many Americans are now spiritual tourists without home places or core beliefs to return to.

INSTEAD of dead Methodists or Muslims, we are now dead golfers or gardeners, bikers or bowlers. The bereaved are not so much family and friends or fellow believers as like-minded hobbyists or enthusiasts. And I have become less the funeral director and more the memorial caddy of sorts, getting the dead out of the way and the living assembled for a memorial “event” that is neither sacred nor secular but increasingly absurd – a triumph of accessories over essentials, stuff over substance, theme over theology. The genuine dead are downsized or disappeared or turned into knickknacks in a kind of funereal karaoke – bodiless obsequies where the finger food is good, the music transcendent, the talk determinedly “life affirming,” the accouterments all purposefully cheering and inclusive and where someone can be counted on to declare “closure” just before the merlot runs out. We leave these events with the increasing sense that something is missing.

Something is.

Just as he showed us something about suffering and sickness and dying in his last days alive, in death Pope John Paul II showed us something about grieving and taking our leave. The good death, good grief, good funerals come from keeping the vigils, from bearing our burdens honorably, from honest witness and remembrance. They come from going the distance with the ones we love.

April 9, 2005
The New York Times