Unguessable, Unfathomable

December 30, 2009

Where go [the dead]? It seems unguessable, unfathomable, beyond our grasp.
                      — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008
                          Russian novelist, dramatist, and historian

holi09-badge-jb“You go to too many funerals,” he said, and I wondered what rubric he had used to arrive at that conclusion. I can understand being able to judge the quantity of certain things. For example, if you have fifteen eggs, you have too many to fit into a carton made to hold a dozen. You can have too many guests for the number of chairs at your table or steaks on your grill. Your new car can be too long for your old garage, your hair can be too short to gather up into a ponytail, and your manuscript can have too many words for the conference application that sets a limit.  But when people say that teachers make too much money, or that some family has too many children, or that a person goes to too many funerals, I want to ask, what would be the correct amount?

The first funeral I remember occurred when I was six years old. A classmate died during an operation, a tonsillectomy, perhaps. His name was Eddie, and he had sat beside me in our crowded first-grade classroom, and to this day I remember his kindness to me when one afternoon I wet my pants. He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and bent to the floor to try to sop up the mess, and called out to the teacher that Margaret Mary needed some help. If the seat beside me was empty for a few days I didn’t notice. We missed school for lots of reasons back then — chicken pox, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria. It was a warm spring evening, I remember, and my mother made me put on a fancy dress and told me that I was going to a viewing. I thought she meant we were going to a movie, and I was bewildered when I was led into a room along with my best friend Barbie and directed to kneel and say a prayer in front of my classmate’s still form lying “so primly propped.” The next day at the funeral Mass my teacher was crying.

My grandmother died when I was 11, and I found myself kneeling before the same catafalque at the Dailey Funeral Home, the place all the Catholics in Harrisburg used in those days. Two years later I was a seventh grade choir girl. We sang the funerals at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament church. This was quite a deal, because it involved walking the three blocks between the church and the school with my girlfriends, singing the funeral (including all nineteen stanzas of the Dies Irae, in Latin), and even, sometimes, being served lunch in the rectory, affording us more than two hours out of the classroom. OLBS is a big church, and looking down from the choir loft, I couldn’t help noticing that for some funerals, the crowd was awfully sparse.

I saw my father cry at my Uncle Ed’s funeral. Uncle Ed was my mother’s beloved older brother, and he died at his beach house the summer I was sixteen, the second day after we arrived there for our vacation. I don’t remember if my father cried at his father’s funeral ten months later. I know that I didn’t, because I barely knew my grandfather, and if anything made me sad, it was that I could neither understand nor share the grief that my cousins, who had lived with him, were displaying. And also that I was missing the final day of the Student Council presidential campaign of Carmen Finestra and the rest of the Marathons (“They will carry the torch for you”), on which I had worked very hard.

Lynn was about three when I took her to a funeral for the first time. It was the late afternoon service for a Mercy sister who had been a teacher at OLBS. I told Lynn we were going to say goodbye to one of Mommy’s friends. She spent the duration of the Mass looking at the stained glass windows and the paintings of the Stations of the Cross and untangling the ribbon markers in the pew missals. When everything was over I stopped on the front steps for a brief conversation with someone I knew. “Goodbye,” I said to my friend then. Lynn’s eyes brightened, she put out her hand to the woman, and said, enthusiastically, “Oh, goodbye!”

I do go to a lot of funerals. I’ve buried students and former students, friends and colleagues, spouses of friends and colleagues, individuals who were already elderly when I met them, and one teenager I’d known since the day he was born. The first question my childhood friends and I ask when we happen to see each other is, “How are your parents?” The unspoken subtext is always, “Do you still have your parents?”

This was a two-funeral week for me. On Monday it was Ron’s uncle by marriage, the widower of his father’s youngest sister. At such events I am gathered in as if I have always been a member of this family, even though I am still occasionally introduced as “Ronnie’s new wife.” People ask about Lynn, they ask about my writing, they say how much they miss Ron’s parents.

This morning it was the mother of a man I have known for almost sixty years. It was he I sat beside at the event described here, he who asked after the parents of some of our other friends who gathered that day. Once again I sat in the church of our childhood, the church where we had made our First Communion, where we had been confirmed, where Bob had been married, and where his parents had met those milestones as well. It is the church where I sang the Dies Irae, the church I can see from the window of my studio across the water. The celebrant was a priest who had grown up with us too. Bob read a moving, beautifully-rendered tribute to his mother. People greeted me as Margaret Mary. The Angelus rang as we prepared to leave.

Today’s event did what such events are supposed to do. Where the dead are and what they are about is unfathomable to us because we have now only the tools of human language and human cognition to try to grasp it. But our faith teaches us that it is not unguessable. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes, “a prayer for their souls . . . cast[s] from us to them, from them to us, an impalpable arch of measureless breadth yet effortless proximity.”

I don’t go to too many funerals. I go to just the right amount.

From the Archives
December 30, 2004 —
A Speckled Ax: There are entirely too many opportunities for renewals and starting overs in my life. Having lived and worked in the academic world for so long, I naturally think of June as the end of a year, September the beginning, and “summer” as some free-floating undefined time all its own. By late December, however, I usually find that my autumn-fresh plans have gotten derailed, my resolve is ragged, and there’s not much chance any of my purposes will be achieved unless I make a radical change. So I come to New Year’s Eve determined to begin again.

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