The Taser's Edge

Funerals are for the living, or The unfinished business of relationships

I might have discovered a good practice for myself, and that is reading something as a digestive after lunch (which works much better in an office environment than taking a nap).  Today, I started a new novel: Gain by Richard Powers.

As well as being a delicious after-dinner mint, it is a welcome break from working on my final residency project which I present tomorrow.  And it makes me think of other directions the project could have taken, such as the experience of death in literature.  Or in a particular work of literature.

In the following excerpt, Richard Powers’ main character reflects back on all her experiences of death and funerals through the lens of her mother’s death.  It’s a horrifying set of reflections,  but certainly very true for many survivors:

Funerals are for the living.  Her mother liked to say that.  More times than Laura cares to remember…Hearing: Funerals are for the living.  Thinking: Funerals are for my mother

Her mother runs all her memory’s funerals.  Baking the stupid spinach casseroles.  Washing the picked-over plates that people leave all over the dead person’s home.  Shushing the shrieks.  Keeping the collapsing widows from flinging themselves into the open dirt hole.  Visiting the deserted, three times a month…

They sing [the deceased’s] favorite songs.  They read from her favorite books, then her letters.  Funerals are for the living, to punish them for all that they’ve failed to do for the dead. (pp. 13-16)

It’s no mere coincidence that I have thought often in the past year about what death says to the unfinished business of relationships.  A partner, a brother, a parent wasn’t there at the death.  Or it was too sudden and things were left hanging in the air.  Unforgiveness, anger, a long-standing argument with a long-forgotten beginning and now no ending to be reached, guilt.

Sometimes when I am leaving the house for work or whatever, I play into my own temptations to fear.  I don’t want my last words to Holly to have been an argument or even a small jibe.  Sometimes I catch myself saving a message from her in my voicemail, thinking that if she were to die, I would at least have that.  (I may have tear-jerking TV to thank for it.)  It is a particular freedom to let go of things that are based in fear, to press the “7” (delete) on my cellphone voicemail and hang up before I’m asked if I want to recover the message.

With other people, without fail, I think about that unfinished business at the time of death in terms of final forgiveness.  Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but it seems to me that dead people have better things to do than to continue to be bound and defined by not forgiving the living; perhaps even stronger, those particular chains can no longer hold them.  And I would love for this to be not just optimism but Christian hope.

The last enemy to be conquered is not the family fight, not our refusal and/or inability to forgive or to ask for forgiveness, but death.  Which means the family fight has already ended and the forgiveness has already been given and received, even before we call the funeral home.