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Rituals of grief drained of power


We’re going to do this our hometown way,” promised Scott, my husband’s oldest and best friend. He was insisting, over my protests, that I call him the minute Andrew’s dad died, because even if he and his wife were out of town for the weekend, they’d come back.

“There’s no need, Scott,” I said faintly, worn down by his kindness. The loyalty stuck in my heart, though, and the morning Mal died, Scott’s was the first number I dialed. He was at church, but I left word, and inside an hour he was climbing the steps to my in-laws’ house, laden with food.

Strange to these rituals of mourning, I felt bemused by his generosity. Would we really want food? Stalwart, Scott helped us tell neighbors, came with us to the funeral home, and quietly set out platters and paper plates (he’d kept everything as labor-free as possible) when we returned. Sure enough, people started pouring into the house, and in that odd way of crisis, everybody was hungry.

We sat around the table, crying and laughing and urging slices of cake on each other, and I began to understand. It was so much warmer, so much more honest than the funeral home, a three-story neoclassical edifice where someone had gingerly placed a silk branch of leaves across a Roman statue’s marble lap.

“Sex and death,” I thought dully, following the funeral director into a plush, silent office. There he explained that in addition to the casket we’d already purchased, a steel vault would be required to encase it. “You get what you pay for,” he said, describing various degrees of impermeability, the last worthy of a nuclear containment site.

Dazed, my mother-in-law polled us all for our opinion. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” echoing in my mind, I heard myself blurt, “Bodies are supposed to decompose.” The funeral director glanced at me, tight-lipped, then dutifully wrote down our choice of the cheapest vault, still $1,000.

Then he started to pen the newspaper announcement: Malvin K. Cooperman, beloved husband and father, blah blah blah, interment. “Er ... can’t you just say burial?” I asked, strangely angry. He looked up, genuinely shocked.

“Oh, we never say burial. It’s too cold.”

Too true, I muttered to myself. Interment sounded like he was on his way to a Japanese concentration camp. But as we were now in what they’d called, on our first visit, “time of need,” I figured my mother-in-law had more important things to suffer than a stubborn daughter-in-law arguing semantics. I held my tongue.

We left soon after, breathing easier in the crisp autumn air. The afternoon passed in a blur of stories, phone calls and fond, fond laughter. There was so much love, openness and normalcy in that house, I found myself almost looking forward to the wake, forgetting the dreadful, macabre childhood memory of my mother being dragged sobbing to her father’s open coffin because her sisters thought it was obligatory.

The next afternoon, we walked into the funeral parlor. Armed by my refreshing new maturity, I was ready for the rituals and went right up to the casket. I recoiled instantly. Mal didn’t look like Mal at all. On Sunday morning, his jaw had been slack, and he’d had the utterly relaxed look of somebody who’s fallen sound asleep on the sofa, snoring in blissful oblivion. After weeks of pain, fear and dread, he’d looked genuinely peaceful. It had been easy to gaze gently at him.

Now, they’d clamped his mouth into wide-awake, pillar-of-the-community respectability. They’d distorted his face to make him look alive, and they’d powdered away the gray-white alabaster dignity of his death. Paradoxically, they’d only succeeded in making him look paler, prissier and smaller, somehow, than the 6-foot-4-inch, ruddy-cheeked bear of a man we’d loved. I moved away quickly, turning back toward stories of the real Mal. But after a while, even the hugs and reminiscences started to feel oddly hollow.

Then, at 7 p.m., our priest closed the casket, and I breathed a sigh of relief. My feet stopped hurting, my heart lifted. Finally, we would break open the constraints of this pastel, generic parlor, admit death’s finality and acknowledge its greater purpose, its transcendent meaning and truth and spirit. It didn’t quite work that way. The prayers and psalms were as beautiful and stirring as they’d been for centuries, but people came from a range of backgrounds, and they weren’t sure what to expect, and they had trouble following the handout.

Bowing my head dutifully, I found myself now looking forward to the burial. Surely the wrenching horror of seeing our beloved Mal slowly, creakingly lowered into the dirt would jar loose real grief, creating enough intensity to commemorate the loss.

At the end of the burial service I reached for Kleenex, braced myself for the cathartic awfulness of the lowered coffin. A moment passed. Chairs scraped, people rose. Behind us I heard quiet consolation, plans to get together. People moved away in clusters, and a few car engines started. “They don’t do that anymore,” a friend whispered, seeing my confusion.

We drove back to the house and polished off the rest of Scott’s food and the neighbors’ cakes. By that afternoon, I was back at work. Unable to concentrate on wider news, I blurted the events of the morning to another reporter, a good friend. He took it all in silently, then began to tell me about the traditional Greek death rituals that have lasted through this century.

“The body is shrouded and buried lightly,” he said, “and in a year, it’s exhumed. By then, the flesh has disintegrated, and what is left shatters into dust the minute it hits the air. Then they take the skull, and fill it with red wine, and pass it around, and that is the moment of catharsis for anyone who has unfinished business with the person who has died.”

How macabre, I thought. How healthy. Death is every bit that visceral, and that powerful. We do everything possible to diminish its power -- joking with the hospice nurse and offering her coffee on the morning of the death, tacitly reassuring her that we’re still polite and reasonable, we’re not going to make her uncomfortable with messy grief.

We remember to inquire about fellow mourners’ jobs and families, eager not to seem consumed by our own grief. We throw ourselves into the practicalities. None of this distance can hide the fact that a man we loved, a man who was very much alive, is now dead. The world has been diminished. The change will ripple, in varying degrees, through every life he ever touched, for years to come.

You wouldn’t know it from the bland, proper forms that, drained of passion and frozen into convention, pass for ritual in modern society. We go through those motions, but they don’t really help. In the end, we have only our memories, and our faith, to help us bury him lightly.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative weekly newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999