Earlier this week, we got word that another member of the generation ahead of me had, in the words of Christian parlance, passed to her eternal rest. In the way of things these days, I was able to subscribe to obituary updates from the funeral home and, as I waited for the e-mail that would tell me where and when my Aunt Jean’s funeral would be held, I found myself recalling all the times that I and my friend, Michael, whose office used to be next door to mine, read aloud obituaries to each other.
He and I were alternately bemused and amused by the dearly departeds whose families chose to include various nicknames by which they had been known in life. John Robert “Cooter” Smith. Sally Ann “Sister” Jones. Things like that.
The fairly recent adoption of the custom of including, along with place of birth, occupation and church membership, the activities in which the decedent took pleasure can be equally enlightening and/or thought-provoking. “Big Daddy loved quail hunting, NASCAR and Alabama football. Roll Tide!” “Tiny enjoyed working in the yard and nothing made her happier than cooking for her family.” I don’t recall the obituaries of any of my grandparents including such recitations and, being a traditionalist, I am glad that my grandfather’s love of soap operas and the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes is a part of his story that, at least until now, has stayed with those of us who loved him best.
And then there is the question of remembrances. It is difficult to choose, sometimes, among the multitude of suggested organizations to which contributions in memory of the deceased may be made and, having chosen, decide the appropriate amount of said contribution. You can’t write the check for “an amount equal to the cost of a nice spray” and expect the people at the bank to know how much to debit your account. It was so much easier before people learned enough French to include “in lieu of flowers.”
Even the standard listing of survivors — spouse, siblings, children, in-laws, grandchildren and, depending upon the view said survivors have toward paying by the word, great-grandchildren — has changed. We have moved from a simple, “He is survived by ...” to “Left to hold him close in warm memories are his loving wife,” etc... I keep looking for one in which the enumerated survivors are “loving wife,” “loving daughter,” “loving sister,” “loving brother” and “son.” Poor son.
I am not being disrespectful, staring at my computer screen waiting for my aunt’s obituary to appear and thinking such outrageous thoughts. It’s called dark humor. Black humor. Gallows humor. It is the urge to make jokes about, make fun of, laugh in the face of this thing about which we know the least, this thing that frightens us most. A futile attempt to avoid the unavoidable.
The benefit of that futility is that it makes me consider the idea that none of us are survivors, but simply longer-livers. The real survivors of death are the words of kindness and the acts of mercy, the songs of joy and the peals of laughter, the moments of wonder and the expressions of love that any single human offers in any single lifetime, each of them launched like a rocket ship out into the cosmos to land someplace unknown. Each of them living forever.