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Country Life

Final Passage

by Richard Brookhiser

The departed wanted no funeral. Instead there was a memorial service for family and closest friends. Since he came from, married into, and produced a big family, besides having many friends, the head count was around 70.

His town has a ye olde street, with half a dozen turn-of-the-17th-century fieldstone houses and a little graveyard full of Huguenots. The family association that maintains the site built a last-century meeting hall, where the memorialists gathered.

The deceased had requested that no black be worn, suggesting in its place Hawaiian shirts, and even though it was autumn rounding the far turn to winter, a few of the non-mourners complied. Sun and atmosphere cooperated with a bright clear sky.

There was a buffet of assorted sandwiches, and urns of coffee. Once you filled plate and cup, you scanned the room for a seat. Only a few knew all, most knew some; each sought the anchor of a familiar face.

The drama of dying — stress maxed by boredom — was over. The gathering was meant to mark a life. Since the Baby Boomers appeared after the cheap Kodak camera and have survived into the era of the smartphone, their lives are well-documented. A slide show that played throughout the afternoon showed our friend at all ages. There was the recently born, old enough to raise his head and look straight at the lens, not old enough to have hair. Little boys (he and his brothers) posed rather formally in holiday shots. Young-man lifeguard. Late-Sixties hair! Why did all the guys in America suddenly decide that looking like goats’ rumps made them look good? A daughter, now in her thirties, dressed in devil horns and tail for Halloween. Vacations, anniversaries. The man himself, in his last illness, on the living-room sofa, dog snoozing alongside.

The iron rule of weddings is that someone, usually a sibling, gives a toast that makes all the guests wish to sink into the floor, embarrassed that envy could be so compounded with indiscipline. This rule was not honored here. The speakers kept to the path of affectionate recollection. A younger sister told of how he had taught her to use a stick shift in his brand-new VW, and though she ground away, he patiently persisted, and gamely insisted that she would learn. An in-law recalled the deceased’s first interview with his future wife’s father: “My daughter is dating a beach bum,” the old man declared afterward, yet simultaneously drew comfort from the fact that her suitor bore an Irish surname. The tributes were leavened with musical interludes, by the McGarrigle Sisters: parlor songs for NPR listeners. Well, that is us; what will the next generation play, Beyoncé?

Running through the talks, and the sotto voce table talk, was honor for his lifework: the thing he loved, analyzed, and practiced; the skill he mastered, refined, and taught to cohorts of students worldwide, from local high-school kids, to Navy SEALs, a president of a foreign country, and a guest conductor at the Met, to my wife.

He had once been an altar boy, though in his adulthood the religion he was closest to was probably Buddhism, and that not very. One of his eulogists said, truthfully, that his favorite venue for practice was a cathedral to him. The only remotely religious words, read by his son-in-law, were taken from the grand assertions that end “Song of Myself”: “I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name, / And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go, / Others will punctually come for ever and ever.” Whitman was a mystic, but his mysticism was DIY, cobbled together from visions and whatever was floating around boho Gotham journalistic circles c. 1850.

Memorial services celebrate individuals. People are not fungible: Family traits, archetypes, classifications of any kind, describe resemblances, not identities. Our friend, like you and me, lived here, not elsewhere, now, not before or later, and did this, not any other thing. We do not live forever, but we are all unreproducible and therefore, for anyone who remembers, immortal.

The comfort, and the justice, of a Christian burial is recognizing the finis that we all have in common. The biggest funeral I ever attended drew a crowd of 2,500, while every day the lonely depart, without even a wrecked friend or an awkward child to shut the box, at most with a caregiver who took some extra quantum of notice. But there we all go, one way or another. The common rite comforts as it levels, supplying the aerial view of history and, more important, its votaries believe and hope, eternity.

In the Norwegian’s long, novelized autobiography (no, I still have four volumes to read, I am slow but I get there), the author’s father dies. Author and brother decide that of course the funeral will be according to the rite of the established Lutheran church. They have no more belief than chipmunks, but they share a winger-ish, contrarian aesthetic sense. NB: Their father is presented as a very difficult man, especially in his last years. The church does not care; ritual shrugs at bad character, as it does at inequalities of popularity or achievement.

Then, to go full Euro, there is the funeral ceremony of the imperial family. The coffin arrives at the crypt, where the door is shut. A herald knocks three times. “Who desires entry?” asks a monk. Comes a long list of titles, all by now gone with the wind, some fleeting even when the family last reigned (the voivodeship of Serbia was never a good investment). “We do not know him,” the monk replies. The herald knocks again. “Who desires entry?” Another list of titles, which, in modern times, include EU credentials. Once more, “We do not know him.” The herald knocks a third time (this, but for the affect, is a knock-knock joke). “Who desires entry?” A sinful mortal. The doors open.

Many jokes are cruel; this one has a happy ending.

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