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Endless Love

Later today I will conduct a funeral service for a woman who never knew I was her pastor.

For well more than the three years that I have been visiting her, she has had no short-term memory. She could talk at length about her childhood, about her marriage and her husband, about how they built the sound brick house in which she still lived.

But she had no short-term memory. And so, though she was gentle and polite and always happy to see me, she didn’t know whom this woman was who brought her paper-thin slips of Communion wafer and teensy-tiny glasses of Communion wine.

And today, reading from the green book of Occasional Services that I use on such occasions, I will petition for her eternal rest and God’s perpetual light.

I’ve married far more people than I have buried.

Unexpected things happen at weddings: The limousine gets lost on the way to the church so the bride arrives 45 minutes late. The flower girl lets it be known to one and all that she has to pee. The unity candle fails to light. The nervous groom speaks his vows looking at me instead of his bride.

Funerals are different.

Nothing unexpected happens. The dead do not rise, the relatives are not impolite, nobody shows up in jeans and a T-shirt or laughs too loud. Instead, all wear their best clothes and speak in soft voices as if somehow the body in the casket might overhear the sad news that they are dead, and that’s why all these people are here wearing pantyhose and aftershave.

Nothing unexpected happens, but every funeral is powerfully different from the last one.

Thomas Lynch, a poet, essayist and, maybe most significantly, a funeral director, writes, “All down the history of the species, death was first and foremost an existential experience, the trigger for the overwhelming questions.

“Death and grief, along with sex and love, were and remain chief among the reasons why poets and high priests, shamans and soothsayers, held forth, and why cabinetmakers and livery men, sextons and sin eaters evolved into the mortuary trades. How much of what we do, from the ridiculous to the sublime, would not be done if we did not die? In the blank face of mortality we always ask, what’s next?

Every time I watch families walk back to their cars from the gaping grave, I know that all we have for answering the overwhelming questions are more words.

And that words are powerful enough.

Standing at the open grave I say, “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life . . .”

But we don’t really know what that means.

I say, “We commend to almighty God our brother and we commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

We don’t really know what that means, either.

I say, “The Lord bless him and keep him. The Lord’s face shine upon him and be gracious to him. The Lord look with favor upon him and give him peace.”

But we don’t really know what that kind of peace will look like.

All we know is that somehow, in speaking of hope, hope returns. Not as a disappointment deferred, but as a condition of our continued existence.

So much of life is really, truly like death. We live through so many of our own deaths: profound losses when loved ones die, profound pain in divorce or illness, profound dislocation when the circumstances of our lives implode.

So much of life is really, truly like death. Only there is no pastor by our side, broadcasting the sure and certain hope of a release from pain, no shaman commending us, body and soul, to all that is elemental and good, no priest calling down the shining of God’s face upon us.

When we die in the midst of our lives, there is no final destination from which our loved ones will walk away, sorrowing, leaving us behind.

So how is it—or why is it—that even without the soothsayers, we go on?

In W.H. Auden’s poem, the lover charges the beloved to “find the mortal world enough.”

And the lover’s commendation is not to the grave or to perpetual rest, but to nighttime and the mortal rest that joins them in their sleep.

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms, till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Just as no two funerals are the same, even though the words are the same, the love we bear for one another is never the same as before, even though to say “I love you” is nothing even remotely original.

But this is all we have of perpetual light in this life. This is how we find the mortal world enough.

“The best thing I know is how to love,” my daughter Linnea writes for her sixth grade assignment to describe the most important thing to her. “I learned this,” she goes on. It was not an innate gift, but a bone-deep practice she learned from experience in all the kissing and mended sorrows, and made-up quarrels and I-love-yous that surround her.

In speaking of love, love returns. Not as a zero-sum game, but as a condition of our continued existence.

Which may be why our short-term memories leave us soonest. Did the unremembered history of my bringing Alice sips of wine and bits of bread matter nearly as much as when I was doing it right then and there? Right then and there, when she could taste the wafer and smell the wine and feel my hand touching hers?

“The best thing I know is how to love,” Linnea writes.

It is not the perpetual light of God nor the eternal rest of heaven. But doing what I do for a living, I know there is always time enough for that later.

But for us and for right now, how else will we find the mortal world enough?

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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