What is it with me and death? I mean, I get this much: It’s not like I’m a doctor, a fireman or a coroner. I’ve never been in the military, never mind combat…
…but today, death feels like a regular visitor. Like a distant relative who drops in every other year or so. You’re familiar with him, but you have to get reacquainted a little bit whenever he shows up. There’s that awkward few moments after he’s come in the door, taking his coat, getting settled, trying to determine how the conversation will unfold, taking in the changes, new shoes, lost weight, shaved off the beard, looking a little older, trying to remember what he looked like the first time you saw him….trying to remember the first time you saw him…
…the first time I saw him. 1969. Watching my mother’s enormous, drunken, Scottish family mourn the death of my grandmother. I was 5. For many years I thought ALL death involved a 3 day long, liquor-soaked shouting match amongst dozens of extended family.
Later, I saw a different aspect of death. My grandfather and my uncle. In contrast to my mother’s family, my father’s family die quietly, sadly and alone. Even when my own father died right in front of me there was a quality of regret in his passing, a sadness which transcended the loss of a loved one. Death himself was lonely that day.
My mother’s death, while by no means celebrated, did reflect a life lived with a celebratory tone. My brother’s death introduced me to a little talked about quality of death: relief. Michael had suffered for most of his 42 years, and death put an end to it. There are others…extended family, friends of friends…
Some months ago, out of morbid curiosity, I counted around 15 memorial services or funerals I’ve performed. Several for people I did not know in life, and was only introduced to after they had been introduced to death. At least two suicides, one suspected, and one suspected murder. Ages 24 to 90.
I thought I had at least seen one example of most categories of death. I’d seen him once in Winter, once dressed in business attire, one time caught him laughing. You know how you begin to believe you know a celebrity because you’ve seen their movies and seen candid shots of them in the grocery check out line? Without knowing it, you’ve adopted a false familiarity.
But as I contemplate the death of a vision this morning, I realize I’ve done the same with death: I let myself begin to think I’ve seen it all. The many facets of death. But I was wrong.
When death visits a person, he is personal. He may be violent and mean, or quiet and stealthy, but you’ve smelled his cologne and seen the dirt under his fingernails. To say its a comfort facing him personally is an inaccuracy, but not much of one.
When death visits a vision, there is nothing personal. It’s just business. And you’re left alone with the corpse, without even death for company.