In October 2015, the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture hosted two writers—the novelist Alice McDermott and poet and the essayist Thomas Lynch—for a dialogue about death and mourning in contemporary life. The program was titled “Unto Dust: A Literary Wake” in the hope that the two interlocutors would envision their conversation not just as an exercise in cultural criticism, but also as an opportunity to tell stories about the beloved dead and conjure the reflective mood, the straightforward encounter with mortality and the sense of humor proper to a wake.
Their initial remarks can be found in the March 14 issue of America. Here is a transcript of the lively conversation that ensued. James McCartin, the director of the Fordham Center of Religion and Culture, moderated the discussion.
JAMES McCARTIN: The next part of our program is a bit of a conversation between our two guests. I have asked each of them to think about some questions they might want to ask each other, either from their trade as writers or from the broader questions that were engaged with tonight. We will spend a bit of time, before we get to some questions from the broader audience, having Alice and Tom talk to each other a little bit.
If I may, Tom, would you start us off?
THOMAS LYNCH: Why, sure.
First of all, I have questions about [your novel] Someone. I love the title only because in that word is the problem I think we find ourselves in so often. Are you “someone”? “Someone” is either one of a kind or just one of a kind. We are either part of the many or the one and only. Of course, the Irish are always good at asking if someone is actually someone. But I am really, really interested in Fagin. I want to know about this person, because I think I have met several people like him. I love the fact that Marie, after she gets her fine dresses from a department store, arranged for by her new employer, feels as if she has been transfigured and transformed.
Can you talk to us a little bit about that? Tell me a little bit about Mr. Fagin. The name choice is interesting, because I think of the Fagin, the teacher of dark arts.
ALICE McDERMOTT: Absolutely. Fagin is a character, for those of you who don’t know, in my last novel Someone. He is an undertaker in Brooklyn. I have to say, there were many times I thought about sending you the manuscript, just to make sure that there was enough realism to get away with all the rest.
I suppose tied in with the idea of being someone—is that unique or is that obliterating, that concept?
I have to begin with the reason for being for the novel itself, which I discovered only after I began it, because I thought I was just after giving voice to a character, a woman who didn’t have much voice in her own life, a middle-class woman of no particular beauty or no particular talent coming of age through the twentieth century, pre-feminism, in a patriarchal—they only think it is patriarchal; all Irish families are matriarchal, but we let them think it is patriarchal—family. So I thought that was my intention, to just do something that I felt not enough novelists were doing, and that is giving the entire novel over to the voice of a single woman.
Yet I realized not too far into it that what I was really trying to establish is, is our
singularity significant? As much as we want to say every life counts, do we really believe that? Do we accept that? That simply arose out of—Marie, the character who I had given the novel to, has a very pious older brother, who is the trifecta for an Irish family: he is good-looking, he recites poetry and he is going to be a priest—and he doesn’t drink. I guess that is the fourth.
Early on in the novel, in order to comfort his family when the teenager next door dies very suddenly, he opens up his Bible and he reads from Matthew. He tells them, “You are worth more than many sparrows. Even the hairs on your head are counted. Do not be afraid.”
When I gave him that little speech—because this is the kind of thing I thought this character would do—as the author, I sort of had to sit back and say, what a crazy proposition. Talk about the afterlife as a crazy proposition. The proposition that throughout history, since your poor first widow woke up in that cave and had to figure out what to do with the dead husband—throughout history, we are proposing that every single life matters as much as any other—a brief life, an inconsequential life. To say that every single human being is of value is a ridiculous, nonsensical proposition, and yet, if we don’t believe it, then we can say this life is more valuable than that life, and then morality goes out the window. Then you can have a holocaust. Then you can have terrorism. One life is more important than the other.
This is a long way around to get back to Fagin. Once I realized that, I realized that my obligation in this novel about a so-called ordinary woman, who would not do anything extraordinary in her life to merit this novel, would have to be looked at with great care, and so would every other character in the novel, because every single one of them would have to be like no other. So when my undertaker showed up, I had to make sure that he was in no way what we would expect of an undertaker. I gave him the name Fagin because he loves to read Dickens. But he is as opposite to Fagin as possible. As a matter of fact, he is out to redeem the name. My undertaker is a warm and lovely and life-affirming character, as I think maybe some of them are in real life.
THOMAS LYNCH: They [the Irish] have these constructs—the same but different. Ah, well, they’re the same but different. And everybody nods, like, “Oh, yeah, we get that.” It sounds absolutely idiotic, the same but different. It’s like tall but short, this but that. Just like America Town: the same but different.
ALICE McDERMOTT: Isn’t it embodied in the “will not see his like again,” although we are all alike? His like is coming around the corner, but we will not see his like again.
THOMAS LYNCH: Yes, that “unto dust” part. The numbers are really convincing on this, because they hover right around 100 percent of the people who are born die. But the language plays such a strong part in this, don’t you think, the way “grave” and “gravity” and “gravid” and “gravitas” are on the same page and they all come from the same root word? I suppose this is why Yeats was always saying sex and death are the only things we should talk about.
ALICE McDERMOTT: I wonder if, a little bit, on what you were talking about, that there is in contemporary culture a fear of gravitas and a fear of the grave, literally and figuratively, but also I think that move toward more party, celebration of life and let’s not be sad, let’s be glad, and then let’s stop thinking about it as soon as we can. I wonder if it isn’t that sense of seriousness that we are afraid of.
THOMAS LYNCH: It is a heavy lift in all ways. My friend Alan Ball said to me once, in the early years of “Six Feet Under,” “I got the formula, Tom. Once you put a dead man in the room, you can talk about anything.” Of course, that is the genius of a good funeral, that it includes the essential elements of a funeral, which is “we’ve got to do something about this dead guy.” First of all, we have to notice that there is someone who has quit breathing forever. That is the one that we first dispatch now. But if you keep them there, it ups the existential ante so much that people really will talk about anything, like reconciliation, or they will have wrestling matches in the back—I loved the narration of Marie overhearing everything going on in the room where people are having their wakes. I especially like all the conversation that took place upstairs with Fagin’s mother and her soiree of nuns and widows and gossips. I thought that was a brilliant chapter.
ALICE McDERMOTT: Thank you. I think there is also that sense of the sort of sanitized stories that people tell in place of eulogies, without enough time to say what we need to work out.
THOMAS LYNCH: The way you handle suicide, both in Someone and in the story that came out in The New Yorker this summer, I thought was really powerful. I think Fagin gets a good line in the story, where he basically accuses the church of getting the idea of the thing right, but the thing itself they don’t have a clue about. I have to say that my own experience with the clergy—and I am not speaking just about Catholic clergy here—so often the idea of the thing and the thing itself are at odds in their own understanding, which is why I think if we can get to the essentials about a good funeral and we can acknowledge that a lot of what we really take as important are really just the accessories—the dove releases, the bagpipers, the mum plants and fruitcakes and the rest of it—there should be some essential elements of a good funeral where we should be able to say, without this, you don’t have a funeral. You might have something else, but it is not a funeral.
I would like to hazard the notion that a corpse is essential. It is not optional. I think someone to whom the corpse matters is really important. Mourners are important. If no one cares, no one cares. I think story is, some narrative on which to hang our expectations about what comes next. Then you have to get rid of the dead guy, and not in a virtual sense, in an actual sense. We have to put these humans back in the humus or into a fire. We have to go the distance with them. I think our hesitance—and the questions that you formed, Jim: Why are we hesitating to talk to one another about the thing that we all share in common, our mortality? I think it is because we don’t go the distance with one another.
ALICE McDERMOTT: Yes, and I think that does come out of a discomfort that we have. I think you have written this, that we have become comfortable about talking about everything, the most intimate details of our physical lives—it is right out there—but when it comes to death, we back away. We are tight-lipped. We want to get it over with.
I was thinking as you were talking—and I have had this thought in reading your work as well—that I can hear probably my own children, because they are so in my head, being contrarians for everything I say with any assurance—I am sure most of you who have children understand that—I hear the “so what’s wrong with not being sad? So what’s wrong with getting over it quickly? So what’s wrong with not looking at the body and just having a nice party and having pretty balloons?” As my kids always say, “Why do you always have to watch a sad movie where somebody dies? There are good movies. Why do you always want to cry?”
I hear a younger generation, who maybe are not as accustomed to the customs of death, saying, “No. The way we do it is much less morbid, and we get over it. Here you guys are, sitting around talking about death all the time.”
What do we say to that generation about what gets left out, what gets lost in that rush to be comforted? I think it was just after the shooting out in Oregon—it must have been just a day or two afterwards—The Washington Post actually had an article about how people were moving on. Kids hadn’t even been buried yet. “The town is healing.” Maybe these were the people who were objecting to Obama coming or objecting to talking about guns, but “the town has begun to heal.”
How do you explain what gets lost?
THOMAS LYNCH: Almost every time we have a horrendous event of that sort, one of the reports will be about the fleet of grief therapists who have been dispatched to the scene to talk people out of whatever craziness the death occasions for them. Ever since [Elisabeth] Kübler-Ross, we let that notion that we can morph dying, first of all—and then we borrowed it for the notion of surviving a death—that grief can take the form of stages, so that on Monday we are in denial and on Tuesday we are angry and by Friday we accepted this. And all to the good, except that anybody who has ever been through that knows it is codswallop. It just is not the way it works.
The notion of closure is probably one of the great stupidities that we foist on one another. It is not the way it works.
I guess that is why I have much more faith in a process that requires—I have always said a good funeral is one in which by getting the dead where they need to go, the living get where they need to be. If you just do the job, the rest will fall in place.
We used to see the dead as journeying from one station to another, out of the life that they inhabited with us into a life that we imagine for them or have faith in for them and our faith makes claims about. We no longer see the journey of the dead as such. The dead are dead, full stop. They are not going anyplace. I am borrowing this from my coauthor Thomas Long, a theologian. Now the journey is from my grief-strickenness to my closure, to my wellness. The funeral no longer is about the dead guy or about the claims that we make on behalf of the dead. Now the funeral is about—in the case of my funeral, it is about my “Tomness,” how cute I was, how eccentric, how crazy I was on certain days—or if he took a drink, you couldn’t rely on him to—that type of thing. It is all these foibles and funny habits, hence the “funeral karaoke.”
Without the afterlife, then there is only the outrage
ALICE McDERMOTT: [On]that notion of getting over it—on one hand, of course that seems to be a healthy hope, but on the other hand, it is the acknowledgment of a full life, the acknowledgment of the power of love. To say that this person whom I loved is no longer in my company, that is a terrible thing. That rends my heart. I am not going to let go of that, that sense of loss and outrage, because that seems the healthy—I guess this goes back to my sense of our hesitation to talk in any real way about an afterlife. Without the afterlife, then there is only the outrage. So if you don’t have the afterlife and you are left only with the outrage, then you have to temper the outrage. Then you have to say, “Oh, I’m feeling better. I’m getting over it. The pain is less.”
I created a character going on 20 years ago, I guess, who I thought was a real old guy when I wrote about him. He was in his sixties, and he was an alcoholic. But his refrain was “death is a terrible thing and don’t let anybody talk you out of that.” If you ever talked about that, then Christ didn’t need to die on the cross to redeem us, if death is not a terrible thing.
It didn’t work out so well for him because he couldn’t get on with his life—at least the story that grew up around him was that that was the source of his alcoholism—but in his tenacity, to say, “Death is a terrible thing and it has taken the woman I love and I’m not going to forgive it.”
THOMAS LYNCH: Here again, the Irish have hedged some of these bets. They are very good around corpses. Depending on the weather, they will keep them for two or three days.
There is this wonderful term that is constantly used in Ireland about the removal. The removal is quite literally when the corpse is removed from the house and now goes en route to a public place, usually to the church, oftentimes stopping at a mortuary where the parking is close to pubs. But the Irish then, after death and after the burial and after each of them has played their part—and these are communities in which they haven’t come to the point where people’s value is attached to how they stand out from the community—are you someone?—but how you fit into the community. Are you someone? Do you do your part? The Irish keep the dead alive by speaking of them always afterwards in what I always call the “possible tense.” “God bless her, Nora Lynch would have loved a night like tonight—the old songs and the way she sang ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘The Boys of Kilmichael’ or ‘The Rose of Tralee.’”
But she is as alive in that conversation now as she was before she died in 1992, whereas we, you are exactly right, will not mention the name of the dead for fear that someone might break out in a rash of grief or bereavement, and we don’t have a prescription to give them right away for this. We are much better at pharmacy than empathy.
I should remember that line. [Laughter]
But it is true. We get a pill for that.
But in communities where people are as accustomed to mortality as they once were, where everything dies eventually—cows die, horses die, crops fail, people die. They die in their own beds and they continue to occupy the parlor, their place by the fire. They happily haunted the community ever after. I think we could do with some more of that.
ALICE McDERMOTT: I think you are talking, too, about having custom, not just the religious part of it, but to have a custom to rely on, to have something that is modeled after what you have seen so that when you are at these crossroads in life, then you don’t have to think about it.
THOMAS LYNCH: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
ALICE McDERMOTT: You don’t have to reinvent it, yes. Of course, that is across cultures. That is the thing that I see being swept aside—“we’ll have a party like nobody else has had.” It is theatrical. It is a performance piece. Again, I can hear a whole younger generation saying, why not? It is unique. This is exactly who this person was, and they shouldn’t have—but then there is also the comfort of community that is familiar with the custom and can participate in it fully.
THOMAS LYNCH: You are so right. There was a picture in the paper a spring ago of people gathered around a wooden coffin in a room someplace in southeastern Pennsylvania. All the people around the semicircle that was photographed for the local paper were blowing bubbles out of those little things that you get for your grandkids. If you read the story, you found out that the reason they were blowing bubbles over—and they looked a little bit like, exactly what are we doing here? There was one fellow there that I identified with, who looked like “and I’m paying a mortgage on this?” But anyway, they were doing it. If you read on, you found out that the reason they were blowing bubbles over the coffin was that the person inside the coffin, a woman, whose name was given, was very fond of Lawrence Welk music. So that makes sense.
I would always show a picture next to that of Seamus Heaney’s sons and brothers and brothers-in-law shouldering him to his grave in Bellaghy. The same thing, a semicircle of people. But the faces were altogether different. The faces around Heaney’s cortege working its way to the grave were awestruck, desolate, full of wonder and hurt, whereas the people with the bubbles looked a little bit like, what comes next? There was no purpose or motion. This was funeral-lite.
ALICE McDERMOTT: I am reminded of when my father-in-law—my husband’s family is all originally Evangelical Brethren and then United Methodist — when my father-in-law passed away, he was cremated. We went out to a memorial garden when we had the ashes just behind their church, just the immediate family, and we scattered his ashes. Then everyone sort of stood around after the ashes were gone, kind of awkwardly, saying, “Well, it’s not quite time for brunch yet. Should we say something?”
My son, who was five years old at the time and, when I was in charge, in Catholic school, very innocently looked up and said, “How about we say a nice Hail Mary?” The Methodists were not too pleased.
THOMAS LYNCH: I had a grandmother who was a Methodist, but that is another story.
I do spend a lot of time in Ireland, where I go to a lot of funerals. You must make your call to the house, because the body is usually laid out in the bed or in the kitchen on the table until a coffin can be fashioned and they bring it in the hearse. But that is part of the removal process. They will be removing them to town or they will interrupt the priest, who will move from his tea to do a decade of the rosary on the night before the mass.
But I was there when J. J. Carmody died and I made my visit to the house. He was laid 0ut on the table, his grief-stricken family all around him. I was in earshot when Fr. Culligan came to make his pastoral visit. He said to Moira, whatever happened with J. J. was very, very sudden.” She said, “Ah, Father, it was gonorrhea swept him.” [Laughter]
The priest, who looked a little bit like me, had a baldhead, and I could see the sweat glistening on the top. He blushed, as priests used to. He said, “Well, maybe it was that time he went up North and fell in the wrong crowd. Anyway, we’ll have Mass in the morning, and we’ll have no more about that other thing,” and he walked away.
I was still nearby as the widow and her daughter came around to upbraid her for what she had heard reports of, saying, “Mammy, why did you ever tell Fr. Culligan that daddy died of gonorrhea? It was diarrhea that took him.” [Laughter]
She said, “Don’t scold me, my darling. I’d rather your father be remembered for the great lover he never was than for the big shit he always seemed to be.” [Laughter]
The Irish know how to do these things. They really do.
That is a true story. That happened. I know you know that. When I read your book, I know you know that. Poor Walter limping in after Billy Corrigan died, the blind umpire. Oh, that was so good.
DIALOGUE WITH THE AUDIENCE
JAMES McCARTIN:We have a lot of terrific questions from the audience. Are you ready for some?
The first question is on categories of death. Alice, you referred to the notion that each person is equal, but we know that not all deaths are equal in some way. There are different kinds of death—say, death by suicide as compared to the tragedy of a death by mass shooting. Then compare that to the death of a soldier in the war. Then compare those things to death by natural causes at old age. These are not the same. What do these different categories of death, if you will, tell us about our approach to mortality? What do they say? What does the fact that they are different say to us?
That is for either of you.
ALICE McDERMOTT: Tom, I would be interested to know if, for lack of a better word, protocol is adjusted, given unusual circumstances or more usual circumstances.
THOMAS LYNCH: I am particularly interested in the deep humanity with which you write about suicidal deaths. That has been consistent with my experience. The biggest fear I have ever had is walking into a room where the mother and the father of a young person who has killed himself, usually with a gun, but fatally—of course, we were raised to think of suicide as the sin that could not be forgiven, that despair was the — and I just reject that, in the same way the birth of my first child disabused me of the notion of original sin. It just did. It just did. If we don’t know God’s grace when we see it, shame on us.
I have buried people who have done horrendous things to themselves. But I think sometimes it was an exercise of hope, that the pain with which they lived, whether it was psychic or spiritual or emotional or mental illness—whatever pain they lived with for which the only repair for them was not to be alive tomorrow—I just think if God is who she is cracked up to be, that poor fellow pilgrim saw the open arms of a beckoning God saying, “Come to me. I can help you.”
ALICE McDERMOTT: End of pain.
THOMAS LYNCH: I have encouraged families, who usually want to keep this quiet or give it another narrative, to say what happened out loud and notice how the sky doesn’t fall. When the sky doesn’t fall, when you are dealing with what actually happened, it leaves room for the goodness that humans can do to one another and for one another and their willingness to bear their portion of this hurt and the sorrow—and, really, this break in the fabric that offends us all. It is why we used to bury suicides at the intersections, so we could run them over because they had done something—and we took their property, because we saw it as a sin that could not be forgiven.
I don’t think that anymore. I haven’t thought it since the first time I had to meet with a family of a suicide.
I do worry about the quick heroification of the war dead. I think this is a mistake. I think it is bad currency. It takes the pressure off the people who declare wars and wage wars, and puts it on the people who die doing war. I am suspicious of that and wary of it. I have seen a lot of parents being handed medals in trade for their sons’ or daughters’ lives.
ALICE McDERMOTT: And even the way we have stopped looking at the war dead. Certain people decreed that photographs would not be taken of returning coffins, that we wouldn’t see the ceremonies—
THOMAS LYNCH: It wasn’t certain people. It was President H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, following in his father’s footsteps. The reason was because the former looked ridiculous when he was caught golfing on a split screen, and it was an embarrassment to him. This is a good-hearted person, who knows war.
But I think the wrong decision was taken then. It was reversed in the current administration.
JAMES McCARTIN: There is a question here, and I want to add my own piece to it. The question from the audience member is, how has aging or how has your sense of your own mortality informed your writing? Or has it?
Then, to sort of piggyback on that, I want to take it in a different direction. As a parent, I am aware of my own mortality. My job is to kind of make my children capable of living on without me. I wonder, how does your sense of your aging or your own mortal end shape your approach to being a parent? Or has it?
So writing and parenting.
ALICE McDERMOTT: It’s funny. I had a very similar conversation just last week with a writer who is an atheist, a dear friend and a lovely writer. We were driving together and he started talking about how, now that he is looking at sixty, he envies religious people, because he feels himself being so consumed by the fear of death, now that it seems like it is in the somewhat foreseeable future. I sort of laughed at first. Being raised Roman Catholic didn’t ever make me feel real good about dying. I still want to hang on.
But I think maybe, having spent so much time as a writer and working out and questioning, but at least dealing with the gifts that my faith has tried to give me and I have tried to both refuse and contradict, and then maybe eventually see the sense of it—I probably feel less afraid of death, here in my early sixties, than I ever have in my younger days. In some ways, it makes me look back at the writing that I did when I was assuming that people in their sixties really must be terrified, because it is coming. Thank God I’m never going to be that old.
I suppose I am delighted and puzzled by reaching this age and fearing death so little. I guess that is something that then makes me worry less about my children. I think that when your children are first born, there is that sense of “what will they do without me,” how much they need me, and how much you have to live for them. I also see a kind—maybe it is because both my parents are now gone, so I understand both how devastating their loss was for me and yet how instructive it was for me to watch them both have good deaths. Maybe that is the thing that makes me calm about facing my own. I hope that I can model that—which is a horrible word, but it is the only one I can think of—for my own children.
THOMAS LYNCH: I can remember, when I turned 52, I calculated that the oldest person I had ever buried then was 104. I thought, “I am irreversibly middle-aged now. This could happen to me.” So I resolved that I would write a sonnet every year on my birthday for the rest of my life, a resolve that I kept for exactly one year. As you know, a sonnet has fourteen lines or, as Billy Collins says, well, thirteen now.
So here it is. Let me see if I can remember it. I say this because tomorrow I will be sixty-seven. For those of you who are past that—and I see a good few of you are—I say, go for the 100. There is a little discount if you make it. It ain’t much, but it is worth living for.
At 52 years, the way I thought—my dad was 67, my mother 65. I occupied this last year between their mortalities thinking—anyway, I am a little haunted by all this. But at 52, here is the jaunty little song I made after the sonnet turned out to have fifteen lines, which is an affirmation of “the older we are, the less we count.”
It is called “Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets.” After I came up with fifteen lines, I thought I had better fix it. But it still has fifteen lines.
It came to him that he could nearly count
How many Octobers he had left to him.
In increments of ten or, say, eleven, thus:
Sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five.
He couldn’t see himself at ninety-six,
Humanity’s advances notwithstanding in
Health care, self-help or New Age regimens.
What with his habits and family history,
The end, he thought, is nearer than you think.
The future thus confined to its contingencies,
The present moment opens like a gift,
The bulbing month, the bright week, the blue
Morning, the hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance,
All seem like godsends now.
And what to make of this.
At the end, the word that comes to us is
JAMES McCARTIN: And here is a tougher question. I think this one is for Alice McDermott. In your talking about the afterlife, there is one phrase that didn’t come up. It is the idea of the resurrection of the body, an old-time Christian doctrine, which boils down to the belief that our physical human bodies, formed beloved by God, will one day be reconstituted and perfected, but reconstituted as bodies. You mentioned outrageous beliefs. This is pretty outrageous.
Realizing that neither of you is a theologian, what is your response to the notion of the resurrection of the body?
ALICE McDERMOTT: My mother lived in assisted living, a lovely place down the block from where our house is, for five years. I would go over every Thursday for their Mass. It was always very interesting. Fortunately, she was intact. She was on the good floor. But people would come up from the memory floors. Our pastor who came and said Mass was very wry and wonderful at responding sometimes to strange questions that would be shouted from the congregation while he was saying the Mass.
He was giving a sermon. I am not a good enough Catholic to know what the feast day was, but he brought up the resurrection of the body. Here are people in wheelchairs, people in all stages of senility, and then, like my mother, people in their nineties or into their hundreds, and then me. But that was who he was addressing. He started saying, “Think how wonderful it will be when we get our bodies back. There will be no pain. Especially for you men out there, we’ll have our hair back.” One man sitting in the back of the room, who was given to shouting out things, but usually things you couldn’t understand, in the silence that followed “and we’ll have our hair back,” said, “Bullshit!”
[Laughter] And I was like, I’m with that guy.
But metaphorically, it is a lovely thing to think about.
JAMES McCARTIN: Anything, Tom?
THOMAS LYNCH: No. I am with Alice on that.
JAMES McCARTIN: This one is for you, Tom. Can you say anything more about care of the dead in our evolution as human species, especially what seems like religious practice? What can you say about this?
THOMAS LYNCH: Our religious practice came out of our theology, our eschatology. I can remember my cousin Nora in her bed with pennies on her eyes and a prayer book under her chin to keep her mouth propped shut.
The Romans were buried with money in their mouths to pay the boatman, the Viaticum—the way across the river. The Viaticum became very much like the—well, it is the communion brought to the dying as the way across the divide.
In real life, I see that played out by a woman—and I see incarnations of her through the room—she came to the funeral home to pick up the ashes of her dead sister because the ne’er-do-well children wouldn’t pick up the ashes. They were in our “closet of memories,” as we call it tongue-in-cheek. She came to liberate her sister’s ashes from the closet of memories, and I said, “You stay here. I’ll go up.” I unlocked the closet and got her sister’s ashes out. It is usually about a fifteen-pound box, in this case a plastic box. I put it in a velvet bag, because this was a lace-curtain sort of woman, and I took it down to her. I handed it to her, and she held it very much like I imagine people taking Viaticum to the sick and the dying in the old days, when they used to do it almost orally to be sure that they had the way across on their tongue. She held them. She walked out the door. Her car was parked right in front. She popped the key fob to open the trunk. She looked at it and she closed the trunk. She went around to the back door, opened the back door, holding the box like a football now, and she closed the back door, then opened the front passenger door, put the ashes on the seat, and buckled the seatbelt.
I thought, “There is the care of the dead.” But it is something we learn by doing what we had to do, as Recki [sp] said.
We have a version of that play itself out every time someone dies. It is the highest and best use of the corpse, I think, to have them around for that.
JAMES McCARTIN: You both talked this evening about changing cultures of mourning. Both of you, I think it is fair to say, grew up in a world where at requiem Masses priests wore black vestments and recited the “Dies Irae” before the reading of the Gospel about the coming day of wrath, the day when the searching judge will come and sift all hearts and so on—kind of terrifying. Then what we have seen over the past 50 or so years is a movement toward masses of the resurrection, which are chosen over the mass of Christian death and burial. And you have both spoken critically about some of the changes in a more, let’s say, festive or positive direction that we have seen in contemporary mourning practices.
What do you make of the changes in our own community, if I am able to call it that, the Catholic community?
THOMAS LYNCH: I think the difference is fashion difference between white vestments and black vestments. I think they should have a committee someplace work on those vestments, full stop. Maybe if they let women be priests, the vestments would improve immediately. I’m just saying.
But the other thing is, I don’t have any trouble with any of that. Affirming the resurrection is the biggest, boldest thing we do. God be with the days when it is done boldly.
But the attendant pressure to make the bereaved grin and bear it I think should be blighted. They should be allowed room within the Mass of the resurrection to weep like the suffering people they are. The community provides the buffer for all that. If you have ever been to an African American funeral, you will often find a couple rows of women dressed as nurses. They are there because the expectation is that there will be a physical outpouring of grief that needs good strong medicine, and often the good strong medicine is what the president called down at Reverend Pinckney’s funeral, “Amazing Grace,” just amazing grace. Accompany them with singing, Long says.
ALICE McDERMOTT: And I think some of it, too—and maybe this is a professional bias on my part—I think we have this mistrust of already-formed words, prayer, poetry. And we shouldn’t. Our words are insufficient. Our individual words are insufficient when we are faced with grief and sorrow.
I recall again and again how, after September 11, poetry was being recited on the airways, the evening news, in ways that I couldn’t remember in my own lifetime. It is when things happen to us for which we have no words. We should rely on those words that are provided to us, and not try to scrape together our own.
Maybe it is too much of a throwback to say, for heaven’s sake, be silent. Let these words speak for you. Your words are going to be temporary. You will say them and, at the end of it, you will say, “I didn’t say what I meant to say. I couldn’t quite put it into words.” I want to say, yes, you can’t. So rely on the words that are formed for you. No, they are not saying exactly what you mean. That is the point. It can’t be said. Our grief can’t be spoken of. Language fails us if we are seriously confronting life and mortality and love.
Language always fails us. So don’t even try. Use poetry. Use prayer. Use the customary forms so that you can be silent amidst it.
That is the thing that I wish we could reassure people of.