Monday, November 2, 2009

Farewell to a merry old soul

Saturday afternoon "Mom" Wilma Elliott's 17 descendants, 10 of the in-laws, and several dozen friends gathered to say farewell. The 95-year-old matriarch of the Elliott clan (into which our daughter Molly married) once explained to me why she survived so long beyond her husband and my parents, who died 15 years ago. "I was the one who was smoked and pickled," she said. (She stopped smoking when she was 90, but she continued to enjoy her afternoon glass of bourbon.)

At her memorial service we sang a few of Wilma's favorite hymns and listened to some readings from Scripture. Susan Elliott, our granddaughter and Wilma's great-granddaughter, played "Ashokan Farewell" on her violin. Then friends and family members stepped up to the mike and told stories. (Wilma's wedding-day message to her granddaughter-in-law: "The Elliott men are stubborn, but they can be finessed.") If the departed keep tabs on us or at least drop by now and then, I expect Wilma enjoyed the service as much as we did.

So I want to qualify my enthusiasm for a thought-provoking article that several of my Facebook friends have linked to: Thomas G. Long's New York Times op-ed piece, "Chronicle of a Death We Can't Accept." Long thinks that many of our contemporary memorial services miss the point: the body of the deceased should attend the funeral. He writes:
A corpse is a stark reminder that human beings are inescapably embodied creatures, and that a life is the sum of what has been performed and spoken by the body — a mixture of promises made and broken, deeds done and undone, joys evoked and pain inflicted. When we lift the heavy weight of the coffin and carry the dead over the tile floor of the crematory or across the muddy cemetery to the open grave, we bear public witness that this was a person with a whole and embodied life, one that, even in its ambiguity and brokenness, mattered and had substance. To carry the dead all the way to the place of farewell also acknowledges the reality that they are leaving us now, that they eventually will depart even from our frail communal memory as they travel on to whatever lies beyond.

I appreciate Long's insistence on embodiment. I like his emphasis on physical reality. I welcome his lack of sentimentality. His article was appropriate for All Hallows Eve and El Día de los Muertos, the days it was published online and in the print edition. There is a time for gathering around an open grave, for lowering the heavy casket (or small urn), and for scattering handfuls of dirt; and these rituals should not be skipped. Too often we Americans trade hard truths for reassuring illusions.

But today, All Souls Day, there are other truths to consider as well. There is also a time for "a soul cake: an apple, a pear, a plum, a cherry--any good thing to make us all merry" (not Sting's vapid new version, by the way: insist on Peter, Paul, and Mary's classic). Wilma's family said the hard good-byes in September, when she died. When we gathered on Saturday, it was to celebrate the love that is stronger than death."Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning" (Psalm 30:5). For those who believe in the resurrection of the body, the joy--even more than the corpse--is a sign of physical reality.

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