From the Xanga archives–North American Death Rituals

I had pulled out this post and loaded it into the queue of Xanga archives a couple of weeks ago . . . and now I’m finding it to be eerily timely, particularly in light of the events of the past week or so . . . death and babies, indeed!

March 25th, 2006

I am quite befuddled. A former co-worker of mine (from SBC) passed away this week, and I am left with all of the questions that come up in situations like this one . . .

first, the flowers/no flowers issue. After seeing my friend’s dad’s funeral a few years ago, where her mother and several relatives had to struggle to fit the overabundance of floral arrangements into no fewer than 4 SUV’s after the service, I see the flowers thing as a waste, and yet there is something that makes me feel like a “real” adult if I send flowers. it’s something tangible, something a person can do. Of course, it would probably be wiser to pass the money along via a collection for the family (something you can always count on SBC folks to arrange), but when one has almost no cash and available (though dwindling) credit card balances, one is at times left with no choice in the matter.

Then there is the funeral and visitation, and with it, another flood of conflicting opinions. Some say that the visitation/wake is “too personal” and should only be attended by close friends and family members. Others say exactly the opposite, that the funeral is meant to be a private affair, and that those with less solid ties to the deceased ought to go to the wake only. I don’t know what I think about it, except that I would tend to agree that the actual burial ought to be something more personal and private. but then too, there is a cadence and a rhythm to the whole ritual, start to finish, funeral home, church, gravesite, returning to the dust we were created from. More than once I have stood in a cemetery and have been struck by the picturesque image I was a part of, seeing it like a scene from a movie, all of us well-dressed actors taking part in this important “scene”. A more clinically-minded person might refer to this experience of mine as “derealization” or some such moniker, and maybe I really am in denial, but somehow I see a somber and perverse beauty in the funeral ritual.

This particular funeral is difficult for me because I had no intentions of going to the funeral itself until I heard that a friend of mine, who recently had a baby, will be attending. Part of me believes with all my heart what I told this friend on the phone–that having a newborn baby at a funeral is something that brings hope to the saddest of situations, that in the midst of all the grief and pain, there is this tiny, perfect creature reminding us that life does continue . . . but another part of me despises myself for becoming what I hate, for using a funeral as an excuse to socialize, for dressing up and presenting myself to those who are really grieving as if I am contrite, speaking the same old cliched condolences that ring so hollow to hearts that have been torn in two . . . I think I have been bothered by this from the very first funerals I have attended, the level of joviality, the “hail-fellow-well-met”, the “it’s so good to see you!” followed by the strained, falsely apologetic, “such sad circumstances, though”. I wish I could say that we come to grieve and to lend support, but far too many of us come to these things with agendas far less wholesome, even when we refuse to allow ourselves to acknowledge these agendas . . .

it could be that I am still slightly bitter over the soap opera that was my former roommate’s funeral . . . the trendy boys in their leather flip-flops and j crew suits sashaying in, not on Sunday afternoon, of course, since there are other things to do in NYC on Gay Pride weekend than spend the afternoon in a funeral home, and who laid claim to this ritual in a way that just seemed to me to be extremely offensive and insulting to those who really DID have a claim to him . . . his family, his “real” friends like Helen, and Paul, who were there for him in a way that these coke-snorting idiots never were.

indeed. maybe just SLIGHTLY bitter.

but it all takes me back to my fundamental problem, which is that I DON’T KNOW HOW TO MOURN. or maybe, more simply, my problem is that I have read too many books in my lifetime, seen too many movies, seen the tidy package that can be made of death, and have not known what to do with myself when I have not turned out to fit into that mold. I don’t trust my feelings . . . much like Pinocchio, or more accurately, like the “autistic” that I have often suspected myself to be, I am not sure that I am a “real” person, that I can feel the “right” things or that I can even trust anything I am feeling. if I am pursuing this whole thing as if I am someone playing a role, then are any of my feelings real?!

for many years, I said that I’d never had someone I loved die . . . I had all four of my grandparents until I graduated high school. When people did die, I started to really question myself, never quite able to trust anything I felt, mostly feeling nothing but numb after years of mangled family relationships that had become so complicated that they were beyond the point where tears could address the feelings. George’s dying didn’t help . . . my love/hate relationship with him, which most of the time was more towards the “hate” end of the spectrum, had been so complex, and things had ended so badly, that I could not help but stand at his graveside weeping and yet feeling like a fraud somehow, like I was no better than the boys in leather flip-flops and sunglasses.

what I know now is that I much prefer the fantasy of death, or the Hollywood/novelized version,  to the real thing. death in reality is too huge, too overwhelming for me to deal with face-to-face. it is the panic attack just before walking into the room for the first time; it is the emptiness that trades places with a panic and desperation that are beyond words; it is staring down at a body and expecting this person you once knew to get up and start talking to you again; it is frantic activity in the days and weeks that follow in an attempt to keep the rising tide of grief at bay.

as someone who has been in love with the idea of my own death for far too many years (and as someone who is embarking on the long, slow process of trying to change my thinking so that it doesn’t include this love) it is still hard to face the reality of what it feels like for those who are left behind. It seems so much easier to be on the receiving end of things . . . I know what the promises are . . . no more crying, no more tears, no more pain. who wouldn’t wish for such release?! but things don’t work that way . . . as Job reminds us, “light (is) given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, to those who long for death that does not come . . . ” (Job 3:20-21a, NIV)

and although I believe completely in the sovereignty and the goodness of God, it seems to me that it is almost always the “wrong” people who die, and I don’t know what to do with that . . . I don’t know what to do with any of this. I am someone who knows that there are harder things than death, and yet no other grief I know of causes me this kind of confusion and angst.

not the hardest?! maybe not, at least for those of us who are unable to love in uncomplicated ways . . . but hardest to understand . . . yeah. maybe it is.

2 thoughts on “From the Xanga archives–North American Death Rituals

  1. Pingback: there are worse things than death . . . I think?! « I wanna love You better whatever it takes . . .

  2. Pingback: Just showing up | I wanna love You better whatever it takes . . .

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