A Sorrow Shared Is a Sorrow Halved: Why We Need Funerals

A heartbreaking finale in a favorite television show left me, as well as the actors, sobbing. A father suffering from the results of a career as a miner slowly drifted from life to death, surrounded by his family. Particularly poignant to me because I’ve had several good friends tread this path recently.

But unlike the people in the program, I was unable to say goodbye to my friends. In every instance, the closest relatives decided to restrict visits. Certainly within their rights, but the reason sometimes was, “I don’t want you to remember her that way.” So I’m left with no memory of taking leave at all.

Funerals and memorial services also frequently seem to be dropped by the wayside these days. No chance to reminisce with others who knew the friend, no swapping of tales good or bad, no exchange of comfort. Just a blank where my friends used to be.

I’m not religious, and these deceased friends weren’t so inclined either. Yet I remember going to a number of services, formal or informal, to say a mental farewell to loved ones. More than that, to offer support to those they’ve left behind, create an emotional finale to a friendship, to ease my own grief. My dad didn’t want a service, so I created a little ceremony in my home for my kids, husband and myself, complete with matzos (my father was a nonpracticing Jew) and a few memories. I needed that.

Funerals and memorials have almost nothing to do with the deceased, but everything to do with the survivors. As humans, we must have rituals of some sort in order to move on or mark significant occurrences in our lives. Perhaps even more important, we require ways to judge, evaluate, measure. If we’re never poor, how do we value wealth? If we never know hate, how do we understand love? If we’re never young, how can we appreciate growing old? Without acknowledgement of the process of dying, where’s our growth in living?

In our contemporary era, everybody’s supposed to be happy happy happy all the time. Books, speeches, health professionals, friends give us advice on how to achieve this exalted state. But by eliminating farewell visits to the dying, along with funerals and memorials, we’re robbing ourselves and our nearest and dearest of an important process. The obese person who primarily gorges on sugar isn’t well. Isn’t this similarly true if we avoid and ignore sad times?

My husband and I have had some end-of-life conversations. He believes in leaving the decision about disposing of remains to survivors. “I won’t be around,” he says. But you can bet your bottom dollar if my husband is first to go, I’ll have some sort of observance, some acknowledgement this person existed, made a difference, and will be remembered.

I remember watching President Kennedy’s funeral on tv. His assassination wasn’t real to me until then. Unfortunately this is now a pattern for me. Death, disbelief, some sort of ritual, reality, then belief. Over and over. The Columbine school victims, 9/11, the dead Santa Fe students, Sandy Hook, victims of floods, fires, famine, and mankind’s evil. Now in my home state, yet another martyred student. I must mourn death and evil to survive them.

I need these aids, and so do many people. Nirvana and paradise are reserved for those who have completed their earthly existence, not for us now.

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Is the sky falling, or do trees have spirits? I find out one day.

The huge silver maple in front of our house in the parking strip began shedding sections of trunk and branches. I might have thought the sky was falling, until I saw the entire road blocked by wood. These weren’t a small inconvenience. They blocked the entire road, smashed cars parked underneath, and required emergency (and expensive) removal by tree services.

Needless to say, the city forester told us the entire tree has to come down. We’ve adjusted to this order, but every time I look at the plant, my heart contracts. It’s got to be about 120 years old, 75 feet high, and 15 feet in diameter. It’s kept us cooler in the summer and served as home to birds, squirrels, probably other critters I don’t know.

What I didn’t realize was the amount of affection our neighbors held for our giant. I’ve never met so many residents as I have in the past few weeks. Without exception, they all bemoaned the pending loss. I began to hope the tree is able to receive some of these good feelings as it prepares for termination. It’s given us so much, it deserves to know of our appreciation.

So I began to wonder if trees have consciousness or spirits? When I was a child of about eight, I thought everything had a life-force. Small animals, bugs, flowers, trees, perhaps even rocks and earth. I later learned this is called animism, the belief that all objects and creatures possess a spiritual essence, common in primitive cultures. Little did I know I was dabbling with philosophy and anthropology, but I managed to outgrow the cumbersome compulsion to apologize to every ant I stepped on or insure all my dolls received their bottles. 

However, my animism reactivated toward my tree. I think of what the tree must have been like when it first started growing. Since I live on the plains, prairie was all around, not forests. Did it grow from natural seeding, or did a human coax a sapling into survival? How many parents and children stood in its shade as it grew, thankful for its shelter? Did it feel pain when branches broke in blizzards?

There are religions and spiritual values that believe in the consciousness of all things, or at least living things. Some people who believe plants can feel and react, have systems similar to nervous systems of animals.

One of these was poet Joyce Kilmer. “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree,” he wrote. This classic exposition about a tree contains in its simple lines the entire relationship of living things to one another. “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree,” he finished.*

So when the noisy, violent chainsaws start up outside my house and bite into my maple, I hope on some level it realizes how much it will be missed.

*An interesting aside, Kilmer died in battle during WW I, cutting short his outpouring of poetry and making him one of millions sacrificed throughout the centuries on the altar of human brutality. No tree would put a bullet through a living thing’s life-source.

April Is the Cruelest Month, but It Brings Lilacs

Lilac bushes present their flowers profusely in spring, most often in April. For Colorado, this means the grandiose display might fall victim to late snows and freezes. The unstated counsel from the annual spectacle of cascading buds points out that for life to continue, lilacs, as well as all living things, have to face risks. So lilacs bloom according to their nature and occasionally lose the race to obtain sufficient warmth and water to strut their stuff.

Lilacs possess a special attraction for me. I don’t know why, have tried to analyze it to see how the feeling of joy that swells in me when I spot the lilacs might be transferred to other situations. Although I’ve been unsuccessful, I think it has something to do with childhood.

My strongest memory of the flower is from about the age of six. My family was living with my grandfather in a tiny Minnesota rural town. The lilac bush grew beside his small two story frame house, which lacked an indoor toilet and potable water. It compensated by having a glorious plant, at least eight feet tall (remember, I was probably three feet tall at the time), and eight feet in circumference. If I shoved through the first layer of branches in grasping distance, I could push them aside to reach a hollowed -out interior. A secret house, a retreat, a place to hide, where the scent of the lilacs surrounded me. There I would host parties for my dolls and build creations from twigs, stones and scraps of this and that.

I wasn’t alone in this belief that lilac bushes were places of enchantment. They lent their presence to stories and poems, such as Louisa May Alcott’s novel Under the Lilacs. Because lilacs are so ubiquitous, growing in nearly every area of the US except the South and places that lack a cold winter, readers immediately recognize their beauty and familiar comfort. They’re a common symbol for spring, for rebirth, for determination.

Somehow, over the years, it seems to me lilacs have toned down their persistent awesome fragrance. Decades ago one early morning while taking a walk, I was struck by their delicate scent wafting at least a block in all directions. Since then I’ve wondered if I’d been up especially early when the cool air was friendlier to the perfume or had there been less traffic exhaust than usual through some fluke? Ever since then I’ve had to step close, to bury my nose in the blooms in order to catch the bouquet. Another victim of ever-increasing population growth and traffic.

Lilacs are glorious. When I see them, I want to embrace them, bury my body in them. I wonder what passersby in the local park think when they see me standing motionless deep within a bush, clinging to an armful of branches. Talk about tree-huggers! No other plant inspires in me such intensity. I’m a victim, just like the Greek who created the story about lilacs.

According to Greek mythology, the enchantment of lilacs began when Pan, god of forests and fields, spotted a gorgeous nymph named Syringa (lilac’s botanical name). Captivated by her beauty, he chased her through the forest. Frightened by Pan’s affections, Syringa used her powers to turn herself into an aromatic bush, thus escaping him. The plant, which we refer to as lilacs, symbolize in the language of flowers, the first emotions of love (purple), while white lilacs represent youthful innocence.

Enhancing and enlarging upon the varied emotions I associate with lilacs is an unforgettable statement by T.S. Eliot from his masterpiece The Wasteland. He magically combines thoughts of beauty, life, death, and pain into one soul-shaking phrase. “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”Bring ‘em on. I welcome lilacs.

To Your Health, Part II (the really rocky road)

??????????????????????????????? While I’ve adjusted to my chronic health condition, an auto-immune disease so rare that only 400 people in the US have been diagnosed with it in the past 20 years, I still struggle with facing death. Eventually it will come, whether with warning or not; and I hope it’s far in the future, after I finish the 20 or so novels I have planned.

But I have a number of friends who are living with much more serious diagnoses. As I’ve watched them move first from verdict to acceptance, I think they become more aware of the “one day at a time” philosophy and value the flow of life and the good things they have. One man, whose relationship with us extends over many years but has been extremely casual, now takes the time to add a word of thanks for a meeting. Several others now meditate regularly and mention the peace and joy they gain.

Perhaps once you’ve faced death, you don’t fear it. I think about other extreme situations that can occur in life—divorce, getting fired, going broke. I know (from some experience as well as observation) before these incidents happen, you can feel terrified, paralyzed. After you get through them, you no longer panic.

So I’m trying to view the cycle of life and death as a propitious* AFGO. That’s the term coined by a former boss for every new challenge—Another Freakin’ Growth Opportunity. Live and learn, right?

* Propitious: favorable, auspicious.