Monday, January 19, 2009

On Death and Fury

Weeks back, a friend was laboring over whether to attend a funeral; the reasons were complex, and my friend's heart was vexed. As he related his conflict, grief and dismay, I remembered a conversation I had with another friend on another day, several years ago.

This other friend and I had attended a funeral of a mutual friends' father. We'd come out of the chapel, reflecting on feelings and thoughts evoked for us by the pleasantries and superficiality during the visitation portion of the ritual. The phrases like well, he's in a better place now and don't he look good in that fine, navy blazer mock the fierce quality of death. On that hot summer day with my friend, the natural light was a true welcome, having been pent up under fluorescent lighting as celebrants of death, I longed for fresh air. We stood on the hot pavement and mused what it might be like if someone were to erupt in fury over the lunacy of this custom-the polite dance around the horror of death. I proposed the best time to do so would be right there, in the midst of gathered friends and loved ones; there it would have impact. I have such a tale in my life's history.

In 2002, a dear friend, my Protestant god-mother, I liked to call her, succumbed to the clutch of death. In life she had been vibrant, a mother of four boys, and friend to countless, and was my mother's closest friend for over forty years; she and her family were knit with ours, so much so that the offspring of each clan call the others' parents 'aunt' and 'uncle'; though we share no known bloodline, save for that family into which we are grafted by grace*. Simply put, her death devastated me. There is more of that story to be told, I digress.

On the eve of her burial, we all, family, friends, old business partners, acquaintances and neighbors assembled at Roesch-Patton funeral home to literally rub elbows and chatter ever so hopefully while a very dead friend lay in the adjoining room. (The words funeral home themselves are worth the energy of another post-what contrast!)

The crowd was overwhelming. Eventually, we adult children, my sister, and the three remaining boys of this woman now gone, collected ourselves to view the body-a strange pagan custom that smacks the vitality of the resurrection in the mouth, but, that's what this little narrative is

There we stood, shoulder to shoulder, dressed to the nines, in fine woolens and cottons. Peering into the fancy box of walnut or cherry that held her frame, I scanned what I could see of her neatly arranged corpse. How strange, how breathtaking, were thoughts I kept to myself. The longer we stood silent, we held onto one another for support, and for hope's sake. Tears welled up. We shook with sorrow.

I was praying this dreadful vigil would end when one of the boys spoke up, sniffling: She looks good, doesn't she? There was palpable silence. Rankled to near violence, the youngest brother fumed through clenched teeth: Good..??? She looks good?!?? Goddamn it, she's dead, she doesn't look good."

And so the prophet had spoken. Stabbed awake by the awfulness of death, we stared aghast at the speaker, and then back at her decaying body. There was nothing more to say on that strange night, so we departed in silence.

Be it an awkward attempt to comfort, or protective flight from sorrow, we all, at one time or another, speak when a sobbing silence might be good wisdom- painful, but good. On the other hand, this story exists because of precipitant words. And so there is, thank God, grace.

The family of grace* I mentioned earlier....the Church triumphant, can afford to scream in the face of death, as the younger brother in this story. Not by any merit we ourselves have won, or by irreverent fury for pain inflicted, no, only by the finished work of our Redeemer in both his blessed sacrifice and glorious defeat of death on the third day.

Soli Deo gloria.

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