In October 2015, the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture hosted two exceptional writers—the novelist Alice McDermott and the poet and 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.
That these two writers are Irish-American, members of a tribe that has a certain reputation for savoring the topic of death, is not incidental. Yet their reflections on how we engage, or choose not to engage, with perennial challenges raised by our experiences with death are hardly tribal in nature.
The essays below represent the first of two parts of a rich and varied dialogue between Ms. McDermott and Mr. Lynch. A longer version of this conversation can be found at America’s website.
Our Literary Wake
By Alice McDermott
Some years ago, I was interviewed on a call-in radio show out of the Midwest. Well into the hour, a woman called to ask why my novels dealt so exclusively with the concrete details of everyday life, details every reader can recognize. This struck me as not an entirely unusual question until she added, “Why don’t you use your powers of observation to write about the details of the afterlife instead? We need someone to show us the details of heaven and hell.”
Before the radio host moved to cut the woman off, I said something about Dante having covered that material pretty well. Then, apologetically, I promised the caller that whenever I had the opportunity to observe the details of the afterlife, I would indeed include them in my work.
In literary fiction, death scenes abound. There is Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich, Flaubert’s Félicité in “A Simple Heart,” Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes in the last pages of Wise Blood, Katherine Anne Porter’s jilted Granny Weatherall, to name only a few. But scenes of heaven and hell, not so much. The dead, if they have any congress at all, are most likely depicted as eavesdroppers or hangers-on. I think of the opening pages of William Kennedy’s Ironweed or that Irish-language masterpiece The Dirty Dust, or the dead in “Our Town,” or even “No Exit,” Christopher Tilghman’s In a Father’s Place or Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.
If, as Tom Stoppard writes in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” every exit is an entrance somewhere else, then serious novelists have for the most part left the details of that somewhere else to the genre writers, to the zombies and the ghosts and the vampires of commercial entertainment—although a striking exception to this may be Stanley Elkin’s 1979 novel, The Living End, where heaven is depicted as “everything they say it is”—pearly gates, streets of gold, manna, ambrosia, fond reunions and endless beauty— and hell is “the ultimate inner city,” with stinking, sulfurous streets and endless pain. It is a portrait that Elkin manages to make both hilarious and touching, both a mockery but also an acknowledgment of the impossible substance of things hoped for—a literary sleight of hand that perhaps can be performed only once a millennium. Because who can blame our novelists for avoiding any literal portrait of the afterlife? Any such depiction, after all, risks, on the one hand, sentimental cliché and, on the other, existential darkness and despair, which is its own cliché.
Thinking about the theme of a literary wake—and hoping that the literary life we are here to mourn is not mine —I have been wondering if the stylistic pitfalls that face a novelist who tries to turn her observational skills to the afterlife and the wise decision most of us make to avoid the subject has a parallel in the larger community of non-writers, or what I like to call normal people. Among normal people, it seems to me, death scenes also abound, not only in our entertainment, whether they be the walking dead, the dramatically diseased or the hastily and violently dispatched, but in our everyday exchanges as well. War, gun violence, terrorism, accident, illness, daily obituaries remind us that death is general, whether we pause to philosophize about it or not. Death is general, and in the 21st century we accept this fact like grownups, with a cluck of the tongue or a shake of the head or a shrug. We routinize mourning.
I confess to being both comforted and dismayed by my recent encounters with the hospice industry, sincere and professional women, well-versed in the details of the dying, who reminded me nevertheless of the real estate agents I have known, with their clipboards and their informational binders and their brief, well-scripted role as friend and supporter at this difficult time.
In the 21st century, we take leave of the dead with anecdote and celebrations of life, supermarket flowers tied to lampposts or helium balloons released into the air, and if we speak of an afterlife, we do so with vague piety—“He is with God,” we say—or cautious facetiousness, tentatively suggesting reunions with loved ones and somehow-no-longer-annoying relatives. Normal people, it seems, like writers, are well aware of the constant procession of exits that life entails, but few of us, normals and writers alike, broach the details of that corresponding entrance into somewhere else. This is understandable. As I said, clichés abound. Language and imagination fail us. No observer has yet to report back with the facts, and any claim to the contrary risks superstition or betrays wishful thinking.
The prose of the Catholic Church itself grows flat-footed in the attempt. Here is the Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary on heaven: “The place and abode of God and the blessed, where all the faithful shall see God, the Blessed Virgin, and all the saints face to face. Where it is, is not known.”
And hell: “Here the damned suffer primarily the pain of loss by being deprived of the sight of God face to face,” and secondly, “the pain of sense, a positive physical punishment which we call fire.” Descriptions that are neither eloquent nor particularly convincing.
Yet there is this:
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. But the bread that comes down from heaven is of such a kind that whoever eats it will not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.
Thinking about this literary wake of ours, I have begun to wonder if it is not death that we are reluctant to acknowledge here in the 21st century, but the awkward outlandishness of the notion of eternal life; if even among Christians the foolishness of the claim that “heaven is somewhere, we just don’t know where,” and “hell has this thing we call fire” compels us to shelter in the less detailed and far less risky notion that the promises of Christ are actually metaphorical, not literal; that what we mean when we say eternal life is “forever in our hearts” or “as long as we have our memories” or “the spirit of our ancestors resides within us all.”
As a writer, I am O.K. with this. I like metaphor. I believe our language is rich enough to convey through metaphor more than we intend or know about the substance of things hoped for. But as a Christian wrestling with faith, I often find myself on the side of that lady who called in to the radio show. “I would like someone to provide more detail, please.” When it comes to the outrageous promise of eternal life, I am with Flannery O’Connor in her famous reply to Mary McCarthy’s words about the Eucharist: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
As a struggling Christian, I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, but as a writer and as an occasionally normal person, I wonder what our reluctance, all of us, to say, to imagine, to wrestle with precisely what this afterlife business might mean indicates. Is it a failure of our faith or a triumph of our reasonableness? Do we sensibly resist being deluded by the proposition of eternal life, or do we shyly stand speechless before the glory of the gift? Is it literal? Is it a metaphor? Do we believe it?
Our Funeral Karaoke
By Thomas Lynch
We have, as a culture and as a community of faith, sort of lost our eschatological nerve. The stories we tell ourselves about what happens when we die have lost their certainty and assurances. This is why you may have noticed that we have replaced the good funeral—which used to be sort of a one-size-fits-all liturgical event during which we would say aloud the things we believe as a culture, and thereby embolden the normally shaken faith of the bereaved—with a celebration of life in which the life being celebrated is the one that belonged to the corpse.
Because the narrative on which we used to depend to uphold us through these times has gotten shaky and uncertain, now we use a narrative that probably fits best into the term “funeral karaoke,” a Japanese term for “empty orchestra.” This is where Uncle Lenny stands up to tell you the facts of the life of his sister or niece or his departed spouse. And the notion that Jesus died for our sins and earned for us eternal life no longer being currency, we replace that with “Aunt Sally really did chocolate chip cookies well,” or “Dad really knew how to golf,” or “After a few drinks, he made a mess of everything.”
Everybody gets a good laugh, which we approve of more than we approve of the good cry. And to really assure that the wince is replaced by the grin in what we now call good funerals, we have devised—for the first time in our species actually, and only in the last 50 or 60 years—commemorative events where the finger food is good, the talk is uplifting, the music is life-affirming, the poems are bespoke and well recited, the stories are lovely, and everyone is welcome but the dead guy.
Have you noticed? The corpse is the one who has gone missing the most. We call folks like me with a cell phone and a gold card, and we disappear the dead from our liturgies of loss, because to have a corpse around is troublesome. Their stillness is off-putting. And then there is the matter of odor. We have a history of sciences and floral tributes to help with that—candles at wakes, etc.
But, in fact, we have lost our nerve in the realm of faith when it comes to last things, final details. We now cremate, I think, somewhere on the order of 50 percent of our dead in this country, but whereas most of us have been to a graveside, few of us have been to a retort. We are not as comfortable with the flame as we are with cremation. We like the notion of cremation. Actually, we like the notion of “when I’m dead, just cremate me,” the operative word being “just”— the emphasis upon minimalization and straight order and industrial efficiency, which makes sense because oftentimes it happens in an industrial setting or an industrial park.
But we don’t go watch, because even though the uraeuses (symbolic serpents) over the heads of the apostles on Pentecost were those of flame, we do not see flame as purifying and releasing. We see flame as punitive. I wonder why. Dante spent a long time on this. I know that the priests and nuns of my youth did, too. It is true that the real punishment was that we would not see God face to face, but it burned there. Fire we have mixed feelings about.
We had a photograph—possibly you had one in your home—an icon in our family home on both sides of the Atlantic all the days of my youth. It remains so. It was a picture of the first solemn high Mass of Thomas P. Lynch, a young priest who was ordained in 1934 out in New Mexico. He was sent back to his home parish in Jackson, Mich., to say a Mass for his own people. The picture shows men in straw bowlers, women in print dresses and nice hats and sensible shoes. These are immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants from the boggy, soggy parishes of West Clare and Mayo and Cork and elsewhere. One of their kind has been elevated to “big medicine” priesthood.
The day after the picture was taken, he was sent back out West. As a survivor of the Spanish flu when he was a boy—which was correlated to his vocation, his calling—he was a chesty boy all the rest of his life, and so they thought the high, dry air of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains would help him survive his priesthood long enough to pay back the bishop for his education. It did not work out that well. He spent most of his time with the Pueblo people in Ranchos de Taos teaching them how to play baseball and how to say the Confiteor. He eventually got sick and died of pneumonia. The Native American women took him down the mountains and along the basin of the Rio Grande into Santa Fe, where he was presented in the cathedral, and the bishop gave him a good requiem Mass, then put him in a box on a train bound east to Jackson, Mich., and Detroit. He sent him collect, as bishops do. When he got there, the poor corpse, he was met by agents of the Desnoyer Funeral Home in Jackson, Mich., a business that I believe still is there.
For reasons I am not entirely sure of, the 10-year-old boy in that picture on the wall was by now 12 years old, and his father, the priest’s brother, took him on the day to make the arrangements for the mum plants and the requiems and the grave diggers and the stipendiums. While the men were talking these commemorations, my father—the 12-year-old boy now—wandered through the old house of the Desnoyer Funeral Home until he came to a room with a door ajar. Looking inside, he saw two men in white shirts and gray-striped ties and wingtip shoes and striped pants carefully vesting the dead priest in his liturgical vestments. Then, in silence, as if on signals that they had worked out years in advance, they reached underneath the corpse and rolled the dead body to themselves and then carefully sidestepped their way to the wall of the room where a box awaited the dead priest’s body.
It was to this moment in August of 1936 that my father would ever after trace his intention to become a funeral director. “Why?” I would sometimes ask him. “Why didn’t you want to be a priest?” “Ah,” he said, “the priest was dead.”
But his sense that he was called to this was unshakable all of his life. It must have been a calling sufficient for a couple or three generations because, of his nine children, seven found their way into work between the quick and the dead, and of their 30-some children, more than a few—nieces and nephews and sons and daughters—turned up as funeral directors or funeral workers, too.
The trouble with us as a generation is that we have gone for the convenience rather than for the heavy lift. We get away from the shovel-and-shoulder work. We have that done by someone like me. We have a fee. We do it quietly. We do it in private. We never see it, while we spend our time with good finger food and stories of golf, where heaven seems like a 19th hole, and if you did not take too many mulligans and you raked out the sand traps and kept an honest score, your trophies are laid up for you in someplace like a clubhouse.
That will be enough for now.