On Dying and Being Known

When we encounter a death, we are apt to spend time thinking about the qualities of the deceased, often in ways that we did not during their lives. Perhaps this has to do with our search for meaning – our need to associate purpose and significance with important events. By engaging in this process of holding and celebrating the lives of those who have died, we honor them, and place them and ourselves in a circle of caring and connection. In the absence of this engagement, we are more easily able to ignore their personhood, separate ourselves from them, and miss the opportunity to connect.

In the first three months of this year, I have been to two funerals. One for my father-in-law, elderly, after a long and generous life, and the other for a neighbor’s son, who died tragically and avoidably, at 22. In both cases, as one would expect, the celebrations of their lives centered around significance, meaning, contribution, and their positive qualities that made our lives better. This is, of course, as it should be. Whether or not one believes in some future plane of existence or not, this is a moment to be united in love and appreciation.

I may not be the only person who has, in moments of despair, imagined people speaking at my funeral, saying the things I feel I deserved to hear while I was alive. It is a pleasant, if slightly morbid, pastime to write speeches of a hagiographic nature, to be spoken by distraught relatives as soft music plays, the candles flicker, and rain pours from a sympathetic sky . But how much better would our lives be, if we made the effort to make these speeches to each other, perhaps only a phrase or a smile at a time, while we are yet alive?

Near-Death-Experience_IllustrationBefore my father died, some years ago now, I wrote him a letter expressing at least my gratitude for his contributions to my life, and I think it was not only something that he appreciated, but it was also a valuable process for me – not so much as a farewell, but as an expression of the love, otherwise little expressed in my rather up-tight family, that bound us together. Writing is sometimes better than speaking, because of the pause it allows for thought, and the tangibility and permanence of the record. I did not take this opportunity before my sister’s too early death, but I did at least have the opportunity to speak for myself, and perhaps for other members of the family, at her funeral. Orson Scott Card’s book Speaker for the Dead inspired in me the notion that it is a worthwhile effort to try to find words that express the importance of a person who has died – not just for the deceased, but for those present who may not have the opportunity or willingness to speak for themselves.

In primitive cultures, I have been led to understand, the stories of the worth of each elder are told and re-told, so that at the point of death all is known, and the tribe can focus on the passing. In our culture, we tend not to speak deeply and passionately to each other, for fear of embarrassment. But how valuable and satisfying these conversations can be.

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