Speaking to Death
My wife and I waited in a line that snaked down the church steps. We were there to pay our respects to the family of a friend. The funeral director approached us. Even though we no longer lived in the town where I grew up, our paths had not been totally different since high school. I eventually ended up in radio. He found himself in the funeral business by way of country music.
We spoke about the friend who had passed, he hugged my wife, and then the funeral director said, “Tell your mom I’ll put that dented coffin in her garage.”
Perhaps my mouth hung open.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” my old friend said. “It still closes and it’s never been used. It’s just got this big dent on one end and I told her I’d give her a real good price.”
Just for the sake of saying something I asked what it looked like. The dented coffin was white, and offered a plush, pink interior.
I immediately wondered if my mother was trying to get more mileage out of her lifelong companion. Maybe she planned to prop that coffin on two saw-horses in the garage. He would see it every day as he left for work and when he came home, just in case he was getting a little life weary. She was probably betting my father would live another twenty years just to keep from being buried in anything pink.
I didn’t have more time to consider my mother’s dented coffin because we entered the church.
The family we had come to see stood along the front, meeting person after person who filed past to pay their respects. The woman who died had been smart, opinionated, beautiful, and wonderfully Southern. When we reached the front of the room, I looked into to the eyes of her husband and tried to imagine myself on his side of our exchange. I could not. The burden of what was before him and the weight of what he had endured was etched in his face. He had seen and was seeing things I could not comprehend.
I had no idea what to say.
At these times, there are few among us who really know what to say or how to say it. My wife does. But many of us stumble down the line, mumble something about loss, and try to get clear as quickly as we can. On this day, the father who was about to bury his daughter bragged about some cheese-straws my mother had delivered to the heartbroken family. The mother who had lost her child hugged me and thanked me for taking the time to come. And the woman who had just lost her sister asked about my family, calling me by name among the hundreds who were lined up to pay their respects, even though we had not seen each other in years. I offered little, other than my physical presence. I could not think of anything to impart that was close to worthy of what they had lost. And, they sensed that discomfort in me and compensated for it. That’s how funerals go sometimes. The bereaved work hard to ease the comforters.
And I’m not being hard on myself. Having been to plenty of funerals, I’ve seen those who are trained to provide solace struggle to speak about loss in a meaningful way. I often wonder if the mourners in the front of the church, staring up at whoever is delivering the eulogy, only hear the teacher from Charlie Brown and a dull string of noises that mean nothing. Or are they clinging to every word because it is the last time someone will speak about their loved one before they are lowered into the ground?
I don’t know. It is probably a little bit of both.
Throughout history, it meant something for people to say you died well after you were gone. I will not die well. If I have time to consider my coming demise, I am going pass from this world like a kidney stone. Even now, when I enter a room, I check out the people in it to see who I do, and do not, want providing resuscitation should I pass out. I constantly keep a mental score of exercises skipped, fried meals eaten, and drinks imbibed, hoping that my behavior, or lack of it, might have a direct impact on my day of reckoning.
Despite the problems I think I have, and the fact that we all exist on borrowed time, just being in the church that day made me want to live longer and better. I didn’t comfort anyone at the funeral, but, indirectly, it comforted me. I’m still here. I’ll speak to death at as later date, even though I know it is waiting. Not unlike a dented coffin, on two saw-horses in a garage.