Academic journal article Generations

Funerals-R-Us: From Funeral Home to Mega-Industry

Academic journal article Generations

Funerals-R-Us: From Funeral Home to Mega-Industry

Article excerpt

Katharine, we die.

The line still startles with its stark economy. It is a line from a poem by a man who, like most poets, could be said to be "internationally ignored." The poem in which this line occurs is called "For Katharine, 1952-1961" and appears in New & Selected Poems by Conrad Hilberry. He might never be on Oprah. There will not be a movie version or book signings broadcast on C-Span II. The book was never reviewed in The New York Times or on National Public Radio.

It's a brief, heartbreaking, life-affirming poem-a grieving famer trying to explain death to his dead daughter ten years after she has died. And, measured against the fat lines of Walt Whitman or Marianne Moore, it is a tiny line: three words only, four syllables, five if you say it slowfourteen letters, a comma, and a full stop-over almost before you know it. One short line of a short poem in a short book published by a respectable university press some years ago-a line which, nonetheless, contains, by all accounts, fully half of all die Existential Truths.

Listen up: We die! The other half echoes in the utterance of the first, of course: We live! Is there something more to say? Against one or the other of these two facts, all of the other facts of life and death are shaped and reshaped so that Morior (more so than Cogito) ergo sum is primal among the proofs of our being. I die therefore I am.

I am always trying to imagine the particulars-that first Neanderthal widow I reckon, waking to the dead lump of her man, somewhere in the Urals or the Apennines, one gray morning forty or fifty thousand years ago. His body has about it a stillness she has not seen in him before. He is dumbstruck, unresponsive in ways that worry her. Changed utterly. Did she wait until he began to smell? Hours in warm weather, maybe days in winter. Or did she know a dead thing when she saw it-seeing in him what she'd seen before in other formerly living, breathing things. Either way, sooner or later she knew something would have to be done. She could leave the cave to him, his tomb. Or she could dig a hole or build a fire or shove him over the hill or into a ditch or swamp or the sea. But there would have to be an effort made to budge or bury or burn him up, something involving the larger muscles; and looking up or down or out or into whatever void she would consign him to, she would ask herself some sensible questions. Why is he cold? Is that all there is? Can it happen to me?

And it was ever thus-all down the history of the species, death was first and foremost an existential experience, the trigger for the overwhelming questions. What's next? she must have wondered; and the life of faith and doubt was kindled in humankind. 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 liverymen, 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?


Burying Mrs. Robertson last April in West Highland Cemetery, I heard it again. It was Mrs. Robertson's son, Alastair, who was asking. His mother had died the sad but timely death, after eighteen months of struggle and constricting existence following a stroke. She was almost 80. I'd buried her husband five years before. Mr. Robertson had had the acute myocardial infarction men of his generation prayed for-the Big One they reckoned was better than cancer. Alastair, divorced, distanced from his children by their mother's life and their own young adulthoods, quit his condo and moved home -with his widowed mother. She cooked. He drove her to church on Sundays. He even began daring a woman who rang bells in die bell choir there. She'd come and do his mother's hair. He'd take her to the movies. …

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