Friday, January 14, 2011

Our big hearts pounding

We do grief well, with these big hearts of ours. The tears, the hymns, the clothes, we’re responsible for making sure they all fit the occasion. Someone will have a videocam going -- see how it zooms in on a pair of trembling lips, a little golden down around the philtrum. God in heaven carries the souls of the departed to his sacred grove, high above the clouds. It’s not critical that we believe it as long as we maintain the right attitude. Here in the gathering darkness, we light candles, hang heavy curtains, and place dozens of vases with stunning arrangements around the room. See the freshly washed faces of the children, their shiny shoes, their little overcoats. The children watch the adults cry and try to make sense out of what's going on. It’s scary. They don't realize that the adults are also trying to make sense out of what's going on. The scent coming off the flowers is overpowering, almost sickening -- in the close, warm room, it causes a few of the attendees to choke. Here in the hushed darkness, stuffed animals would not be out of place, placed next to the framed photographs and strings of beads. Some little signs of life.

This is why we're here: inside the casket, draped in an embroidered white cloth, lies a body. It used to be alive. It used to be a person, the person whose spirit is said to be in the room, here among the mourners, a palpable presence like a breath of wind or a shaft of light, something that comes and goes, but more substantial than a fleeting memory. Because we do grief well, we are graced by this spirit’s presence. It asks us to consider how we’ll be remembered.

We have no idea how we’ll be remembered. It’s out of our control. We sob, anguished and bewildered, yet still determined to grieve authentically, shaking our fists at the nothingness all around us. We beg, "Don't take our grief away from us. It is all we have." Oh my people who wander in the wilderness, thirsty and weary, I will comfort you. Here in the vale of death, performing the attendant ceremony, what are we to make of the mystery of our own lives -- the very fact that we are still here, praying for the soul of the body in the casket? The one who is no more.

People die of bullet wounds or cancer, broken hearts or old age, foolhardiness or excessive caution. There is no plan, there is no appointed hour. We don't know in advance when we will die. We don't know where it goes, our consciousness and the world that it carries. It is 2011 and we still haven't a clue. You hear the same platitudes coming from the pulpit as you do in the hallways at work, insufficient words concerning the character of the deceased and the degree of our grief. We the living shuffle through our memories and regret how we’ve wasted our time. This regret adds to our grief.

Standing here in the gloom, it’s obvious that we do grief well, with these big hearts of ours, with this need to ascribe meaning to the plain fact of death, bringing to it our spiritual dimension. This is what separates us from the animals, our ceremony and words, our signs and symbols. Stare at the casket -- it really is a terrible thing to contemplate extinction while you're still alive -- and then look around the room at the other mourners. It’s sad but this is probably the closest we'll ever get to one another, with our big hearts pounding and our shared grief.

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