Friday, September 21, 2012

How to Perform a Funeral

Resurrection lily
I opened this blog this morning because I had something to say that was urgent enough to interrupt my preparations for a shower. It was this: I've been to four funerals in the past two months, and I've seen more than one pattern.  One of them is that people collude to talk about what an ornery prankster cute person someone was.  And I didn't recognize that person at all.  It seems to be about not wanting to tell the truth about someone who was hard to love and unsatisfying.  Maybe not wanting to see that reality.  When there are lots of conflicted feelings, the past gets remodeled.  (But isn't that how people are, anyway?)

I have a sincere request: don't do that to me when I die. I have no idea whether an "I" will be left, and if so, whether I will be around to know what you do, or care.  But I'd just like to think that this wish of mine will be respected. I am a real person. If you can't say something authentic about me, just sit there and say nothing. That will do. Don't invent some lovable eccentric (notice how I am leaving out cuss words here). Don't invent me after I am dead. 

In line with that general idea of acknowledging the real life and death of a person, here is a wonderful poem that I remembered as we drove home yesterday from the funeral for Tom's father.  I read it aloud to Tom and we both felt grounded at last. Williams was a physician, so he got to see plenty of phony covered-up plastic smiles and talk about heaven and love and faith, and weird distortions of the past, enough to make him write this.  There is only one thing I have faith in - I, too, will die.  I don't know when.  I told Tom to begin my own memorial service with this.

                      by William Carlos Williams

I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
of artists—
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.

See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ's sake not black—
nor white either — and not polished!
Let it be weathered—like a farm wagon—
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.

Knock the glass out!
My God—glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
the flowers or the lack of them—
or what?
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass—
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom—
my townspeople, what are you thinking of?
A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.

No wreathes please—
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes—a few books perhaps—
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
my townspeople—
something will be found—anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.

For heaven's sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that's no place at all for him—
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down—bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I'd not have him ride
on the wagon at all—damn him!—
the undertaker's understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!

Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind—as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains! Go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly—
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What—from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us—it will be money
in your pockets.
Go now
I think you are ready.

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