Jan/Feb 2009 Salon

Funeral Games

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Artwork by Robert Hoover

I no longer attend funerals. It's not a question of disapproving of them for religious or other reasons, though I do find much of what goes on at the average funeral distasteful. Nor do I stay away because I see no point attending the wake or funeral of someone who, along with their closest family members, no longer sees me as a member of the family, someone welcome in their homes, not just when someone has died.

I also don't attend the funerals of neighbors, though I think I feel their loss as much as anyone else. But I also feel something like revulsion where others feel an attraction, not an attraction to death or the sight of the dead friend or neighbor but an inclination to gather together with the bereaved in a public show of sympathy and ritual.

I'm not proud of my behavior. But I don't have to resist the sense of shame I used to feel. I used to be one of those who traveled to attend the wakes and funerals of cousins and uncles, not to mention friends and close relatives. I even attended the wakes of relatives of clients when I was a social worker. Wakes, especially Irish weeks, the ones I was most familiar with, were not gloomy affairs. They were more like parties where I got to chat with relatives I hadn't seen since the last wake or wedding. The dead was merely another member of the party, albeit a silent one. I knew there were other kinds of wakes. A few I attended in the Latino community were full of weeping mothers and friends, and the Italian funerals during my career as an altar boy sometimes ended with the mother or spouse of the deceased trying to throw herself into the open grave.

I found all of this interesting, at least when it was not my own parent or child that was being lowered into the ground. Not just the customs but the expected emotional responses to death turned out to be much more varied than I would have thought possible back in the days when my grandfather and grandmother died and the result was a kind of three-day house party.

No doubt I see the rites of the dead now in a different light because I am so much closer to the end of life than to its beginning. But I have always anticipated death, even as a child and adolescent when one is supposed to consider oneself immortal. I can't fully explain my new attitude toward death without going into a self-analysis that is not my intent here. But it has caused me to think a bit about what it is we are trying to do when we perform these rituals, whether they be the light touch of the Irish or more somber and emotional responses to death.

Why is it so important to observe these ritual gatherings and solemn religious sendoffs, not to mention the gut-wrenching words over the coffin? Why do we not simply take our goodbyes of the dead friend or relative and be done with it? We put the body under the ground for reasons of hygiene, not just to confine them to the dust from which we supposedly all arose. Jews and Muslims bury their dead the same day, though Muslims and Jews may have more elaborate and lengthy periods of mourning than their Christian neighbors who keep the body around for several days, pumping it full preservatives so they can display it as if the deceased were just in a kind of coma from which he or she will unfortunately never awake, unless it be on the day of judgment.

Why bother with all of this? Is it just for the sake of mutual comfort or is something else going on? Are we just reluctant to part with our loved ones, or are we trying to confront death itself in a way that makes us feel it is manageable and therefore an event that we can face when our time comes with a sense, if not of power, at least with a measure of control?

I should add, I suppose, that I have never seen anyone actually die, never been there at the moment or even the same day. This isn't a matter of my avoiding the occasion. Death takes place nowadays in sterile hospital rooms for the most part. More and more we are choosing to die at home, but so far I have been spared, or denied, the experience of seeing another human being die. Had I done so the experience may or may not have modified how I see the religious and social customs we use to ameliorate and transform death into something else. But I doubt it.

For me, the iconic image of a creature reacting in the face of death is not a human face but that of a caribou whose offspring had just been taken down by a wolf pack and was in the process of being torn apart. Even this was an image I only witnessed on film, and I realize I am at the mercy of the film editor's honesty that the footage I saw was in fact what the narrator said it was. But that animal's face watching the wolves do what wolves do is iconic for me because it represents, and probably did so long before I gave this any serious conscious thought, how all living creatures with any degree of consciousness react in the presence of death.

It is a face of shock and pain and deep puzzlement (I'm not interested here in arguing whether or not an animal feels emotion in anything like the sense a human being experiences it). Death makes no sense, because we cannot experience it as we do other events, events we can report back on or at least incorporate into our other experience and make part of the narrative that is our life but also that of the more general experience of our kind. We can compare death to an endless sleep, but there is no sleep from which we cannot awaken. In truth, nothing is comparable to death. It is unique and unknowable and horrible because it suggests oblivion, nothingness. A mind cannot comprehend nothingness. It can only recoil from it or stand like that calf's mother stupefied in shock and grief.

I don't know what resources a caribou or a dog or a chimpanzee has to deal with death. I have read that elephants practice an annual memorial for their dead after holding a kind of funeral at the time of its passing. But it seems clear to me that the rituals we humans surround death with are an attempt to put it into a context, an experienced narrative that makes it easier to accept and even transform. It is an attempt above all, I think, to control death, so that instead of being at its mercy, standing like the caribou in shock without a clue to what we're witnessing, we take control, if only after the fact. We take charge of death, if not physically, then psychologically by denying it with a narrative of immortality or surrounding it with images, words and music that make it conform to something we can at least live with if not totally accept. Death is the unknown or nothingness. Our minds abhor both. We therefore marshal all our imaginative and other powers to do what those faculties are there to do in every other situation that tests our knowledge and previous experience.

But I find none of these artifices satisfying, not as others seem to do or seem to convince themselves they do. I see the comfort there, but the pretense that it requires to gain that comfort is beyond me. When someone dies, especially if they die suddenly and indecorously as did a neighbor who was recently felled by a brain aneurysm, there is no time to avail ourselves of those artifices. That neighbor was in the prime of life. She had just returned home from work with a headache that turned out to be the last thing she would feel. Her death was too preposterous to comprehend, as sudden and meaningless as if a car had come up on the sidewalk and struck her. There was no time to put what had happened to her into the context that we assign the more lingering deaths of our elderly who have "lived their lives in full." Rather, this was the caribou mother standing stupefied at the edge of the field watching the unthinkable take place. Friends, family and neighbors had no no way of making sense of what had happened, and still don't, though over the days that followed the usual rites and rituals transformed death from the incomprehensible into something manageable, a context that allowed our first instinctual reaction to recede back into an inner recess of our mind where we need not confront it.

These rites of passage are not just religious and social but medical as well—the ambulance and the emergency room are part of the methods afforded us to control what we know instinctually to be uncontrollable and uncontrolled. When doctors are no longer able to offer any hope of control, they hand over the situation to the religious professional. I had a friend who used to speak about how well this process works. When the patient was dead or as good as dead, he said, and he went out to tell the waiting family members that he had "done all we could," there was the clergyman waiting to tell the grieving that it was God's will. A perfect pass of the baton.

But the question remains, why do we put ourselves through the ordeal that is the rites and rituals of death? Why do we subject the dead's loved ones to what amounts to rubbing salt in the wound? Do the reasons we give for this torture—"taking leave" "coming to terms with loss"—amount to anything more than a rationalization for practices that are merely traditional and therefore to be taken for granted, albeit overlaid with modern psychological jargon? We do this surely not for the sake of the dead who are beyond benefit, but for ourselves. And yet, it is we, the family and friends of the deceased, who are made to suffer.

The great artistic expression of the above, from primal terror to the most ardent hope, is perhaps Mozart's Requiem. In it you can hear the child's pleading for mommy to make it all right, the relentless fear of hellfire, the majesty of the force or divinity that is ultimately in charge, the eventual resignation, repeating the same musical theme of the conclusion with which the music begins, as if everything that came in between, the terror, the worship, the pleading, in the end has left us where we started.

I used to think the Mozart funeral mass was the work of an immature artist, however great a musician, for the very reason of its childish elements, its appeal to the emotions of a ten-year-old. But maybe Mozart's is the most honest response we can have in the face of this one inevitable tragedy. In a post-Darwinian world we know better than ever why we must die. It is for the same reason that every other creature must die, partly just to make room for other organisms that are constantly being reproduced. We should also know by now that we are imbedded in the life of the planet the same as every other living thing is, that we are literally cousins not just to chimpanzees and whales but to oak trees and viruses. We knew this intuitively once, and when we killed another living thing we took responsibility that we had in fact killed one of our own, however necessarily.

Today we give no more thought to the distant cousins we raise and slaughter in factories than we do to the air we breathe. We are heirs to a narrative that tells us we are exceptional, privileged, chosen, unique. When one of us dies, it is not the same as when a caribou dies, even if we still retain the same emotional response to death as that caribou. The hamburger we consume we know is flesh of our flesh to a proximity we never would have believed possible a couple hundred years ago. And yet we consume it with no sense of responsibility for a fellow creature's death. We even make an art out of its preparation—though the same could be said, of course, for the lettuce in our salad—everything that lives is food for us for the very reason that it is so very like us that we can assimilate it easily and efficiently. We eat what we are.

This should not be a scandal. The scandal, it seems to me, lies in our denying reality, not in being part of it, in fancying ourselves different and better than the jackal or hummingbird. The scandal is in our not acknowledging our oneness with that caribou mother and that caribou calf—and with the wolf who took him down.

I wonder if our insistence on immortality, even at the risk of spending it in a kind of eternal Guantanamo Bay, isn't just selfishness. Understandable selfishness, but selfishness nonetheless. I certainly don't want to stop living, and I'd like to believe that my loved ones do continue on even after they have died, however lacking the evidence may be that this is so. We're like children who don't want to leave a party or come in from playing. Even those of us who have a firm belief in an afterlife go to what can seem extraordinary lengths to prolong our earthly lives given the rich afterlife we believe is awaiting us.

How many religions exist mainly to satisfy this insistence that the party not end, that the street lights never go on and we never have to go to bed and not wake up. It's hard to think of any that don't, whether it's the Christian resurrection of the body, the Muslim afterlife or even the Eastern idea of reincarnation. It all amounts to a kind of parental reassurance that we can go out and play again after we eat our peas and drink our milk.

In ancient times we weren't so sure about our immortality, or at least it was something reserved to a chosen few who attained a higher form of consciousness. Or it was less of an individual thing, like the Jewish idea of death being a union with the other Jewish dead, becoming a part of the people. Death was permanent and irreversible.

Did we hold life cheaper then? Not if the slaughter of the last century is any indication. Our behavior toward one another seems largely unaltered by our belief or non-belief in immortality. The conquistadores rationalized their own slaughters by thinking they were sending their victims off to a better life. Does it matter whether you are run through by a Hun or hacked to death by a Belgian machete or gassed to death in a Nazi oven?

Does this mean I think we should put our dead in Hefty bags and leave them for the garbage man to dispose of? Not quite. In fact, if we're all literally mortal (and I have no quarrel with those who believe we aren't), isn't life even more precious than if we lived forever? If so, memorializing our dead should be even more important than if we think they have merely shuffled off to a different and hopefully better place. But it need not include the sadomasochistic rites that much of our leavetakings now feature. It should be enough to know that we are separated forever from our loved ones without having to endure the endless rituals that hammer that point home like a medieval torture, partly no doubt so we will mend our ways and stick close to the saving protection of Holy Mother Church, Mosque or Synagogue.

I don't want to tell that caribou mother or any other mother not to grieve. All I'm asking is that we grow up. Life in the here and now is too precious for us to waste either in fear or hope of its continuing forever. And, lest this still seem too depressing to accept, let me assert that the here and now is also eternity, and that behind death, as behind life, lies a great mystery whose dimensions we can only glimpse. And shouldn't that be enough?


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