Magazine article The Christian Century

The Dead and Gone. (Rituals of Mourning)

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Dead and Gone. (Rituals of Mourning)

Article excerpt

NOT ONLY did they die, they disappeared. There's the terrible fact becoming all too clear. We will not get them back to let them go again, to wake and weep over them, to look upon their ordinary loveliness once more, to focus all uncertainties on the awful certainty of a body in a box in a familiar room, borne on shoulders, processed through towns, as if the borderless country of grief could be handled and contained, as if it had a manageable size and shape and weight and matter, as if it could be mapped or measured.

Humankind consigns its dead to oblivions we choose--the grave, or flames, or tomb, or sea, or open air. And the doing of it is the way we deal with it. These hard duties have their comforts. So the further hurt of that late-summer Tuesday's dead is that it will not be kin that scatters them, or friends who carry them or family ground that covers them, or their beloved who last whispers soft goodbyes. They are the lost--too vastly buried, too furiously burned, too utterly commingled with the horror that killed them to get them back, to let them go again. We could not rescue very many. We will recover all too few. There are thousands dead and gone, Godhelpus.

We know this the way we know the weather and the date and dull math of happenstance we are helpless to undo.

I've been a funeral director for 30 years. I've waited with the families of abducted children, foreign missionaries, tornado victims, drowned toddlers, Peace Corps volunteers, firefighters overcome by flames, passengers in fallen planes, Vietnam and gulf war casualties--waiting for their dead to be found and counted, identified and returned to them from whatever damage or disaster claimed them. And I've heard no few well-meaning ignoramuses suggest that the body in the box, there among the gladioli and hushed respects, was "just a shell" or "only the tent" or some other metaphor to minimize the loss. They meant, of course, to say that our souls outlive us, that we are more than blood and bone and corporality.

But the bodies of the dead are not "just" anything or "only" anything else. They are precious to the living who have lost them. They are the seeing--hard as it is--that is believing, the certainty against which our senses rail and to which our senses cling. They are the singular, particular sadness that must be subtracted from the tally of sadness. So the cruelty is real, the pain of it unspeakable. It is as if, until they are returned, their deaths belong to their murderers, the media, the demographics or the larger history of the world. …

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