I have been thinking a lot about death lately. Not in a panic or a depression, but in a more analytical or contemplative way. Perhaps I am coming to terms with death’s finality and its reality.
There are a lot of reasons for this thinking. First of all, I am getting older and closer to the day of my own death. Then the public political discourse on health care has taken an odd turn of arguments about whether doctors should consult with patients at government expense about end of life treatment, and there is the ridiculous assertion of the whacky right that the Obama administration is trying to set up “death panels” to euthanize senior citizens.
Another reason I am thinking about death is that a man I lived with for 20 years has just died. I am still getting my head around his death. For 6 years after we were divorced we lived in the same town and I watched over him, taking him to the hospital when he was sick or when he had indulged alcohol to the extent of needing medical intervention. From time to time we went out to dinner, to the theater, or to the opera together. Three years ago he finally retreated from my life when I remarried. He went back to his home town to be near his sons. After he left we communicated by phone quite often until he found a new love and had less need to talk to me.
Yesterday I discovered I needed a certificate of his death. There is a small sum of money which is to come to me. I have no way of knowing whether this was his intention, or whether he just forgot to take my name off as beneficiary. I cannot call him to ask: he was cremated and no longer exists except as ashes. I would like to think he meant me to have it.
After he died I had a conversation with his oldest son, executor of his estate, who was uncertain as to where to place the ashes. I was able to tell this son of a family plot in a lovely old graveyard in South Carolina, his home state, where his father and grandfather are buried and where he owned several gravesites. He and I visited the place about 20 years ago and had a marker put on his father’s grave.
I thought about death again when, in the last few days, I found an old address book and some old photographs. Many of the names in the book are of people now dead; many of the pictures are of loved ones gone. I remembered thinking, when I was about 25, how remote death seemed. At that age I didn’t personally know anyone who had died.
Thinking about death is not new for me. It is a gradual process that continues in a bumpy course. Sometimes I think that nature is barbaric, and how terrible it will be not to be. Sometimes I drift into a sort of oneness with nature: my genes will continue, and I, as a unique being with my own consciousness, am unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
But consciousness, my own, is my only real treasure. While I live I see art and flowers and sunsets, I hear music, I taste oysters and tomatoes, I touch my husband’s body and feel him touch mine. When I no longer exist other humans will know such things, but I, Anne, will be gone. Well, not completely gone for a while. Those who have known me, especially those who loved me, will remember me, and some of me will remain as memory in their worlds. Some of the art I have made will remain for a while; some of my words will live for a while. Eventually all of me will disappear from the earth. Eventually the earth and all the living things on it will be gone.
When I get to this stage I stop myself. Though I am not a believer in any religion or in a “life after death”, I am certain of one thing: I don’t know much, if anything, that I can be certain about. I don’t understand this universe that I live in a tiny part of. In spite of the years I have spent studying living things I don’t understand the essence of life (nobody does), and I am not even sure what “reality” is. There is so much true mystery. I am so little equipped to solve these mysteries.
That’s when I start to think about funerals. All cultures have some kind of ritual about death. Why? I think it is because of love. We need to affirm that we loved the one who died, and that we who are still alive love each other.
Some people specify that no ceremony should accompany their departure. I think that’s a mistake. Those who are left behind need to have a way to say goodbye. My youngest brother was killed in an automobile accident, and my step-mother and father, devastated, decided not to have any sort of remembrance. I felt an emptiness; that something was missing and the gap is still there 50 years later. I dislike the overused word closure, and I don’t think it really expresses what’s lacking when there is no funeral or memorial. It isn’t that one needs a finish, but rather that one needs to find a unity or a continuity; an affirmation that the living are connected to the dead and to each other.
Some people plan their own funerals, as Ted Kennedy did. Some have only the traditional ceremony of their religion, some improvise. Some just have a party.
After my divorce I had an intermittent relationship with an Englishman who had many women in many countries, most of whom had born him children. I went to England to take care of him while he was dying of cancer. When I asked him what wishes he had for his funeral he said he would like his children, who ranged in age from 45 to 6, to be there. I managed to collect 6 out of 7. There were 3 from England, 1 from France, 1 from Germany, 1 from the United States. The youngest, a little girl, lives in Seattle and her mother couldn’t afford the airfare. Some of them had not met until that day.
At my mother’s funeral her step-son encountered his brother’s widow. They had not spoken to each other for 35 years, since the brothers quarreled over their mother’s possessions after her death. When they met they were civil, and were even friendly late in the day, when we had a family gathering at my sister’s house after the service. Although this amity did not last, it would have pleased my mother to know that, in remembering her, an old feud had been suspended.
I have thought about my own funeral. I want children, grandchildren, great grandchildren there. I want whatever friends are left alive to be there. I want them all to be nice to each other. I’ll have some music, some hymns: Fling out the Banner (I loved it when we sang it in school), Our God our Help in Ages Past (another favorite from school), Abide with Me. I’d like a traditional Episcopalian service. I’d like a chance for anyone to speak. Then I want a grand party with laughter and lots of good food and wine. At the end I want some fireworks.
I hope the people who are there will remember that they are connected together through blood and love; that they will carry on in their lives together and separately, thinking of me sometimes and remembering that I loved each one.