The cars leave the parking lot, find the highway and speed north. The tire hum rises, plateaus. Scenery goes by. Trees and water. Vineyards. It all seems a bit blurry. I am preoccupied with what I am going to say at the gravesite. Being in a largely white-haired congregation, I am getting a lot of practice at this skill. But I don’t want to blow it. Forget words or mispronounce a name or jump lines. Say anything inappropriate to the situation. Sound too flippant. Be too … anything. I remember the first funeral I attended. Being initiated into its mysteries by my uncles. Gripping my grandfather’s casket in silent effort. Lockstep out the doors and down the stairs to the hearse. The easy laughter of the men travelling to the cemetery. But today will be different. It is not someone at the end of a long life. It’s the stillborn grandson of my friend. The child was due to be born on the same day as my son. My son came out alive. His grandson didn’t. First days. Last days.
The cars have left the highway and are turning their way onto ever smaller roads. There is the crunch of tires on gravel as we turn into a lane, up through the trees to the top of a small rise. We stop, everyone getting out. It is a small pioneer cemetery. No fence. A few headstones. The woods encroaching. It is a peaceful, forgotten place in the world. I stand with the psychologist, a family friend who will say some words. We chat a bit. Light talk, innocuous. Filling the vacuum of the moment. It is cold, frosty, approaching the turn of the year; when the sun will get weaker and something deeper will grip the air. For now the sun’s bright where it leaks through the naked trees, stripped of all the glory that once clung to them. Now they are barren sentinels, erect and still. And we wait. Standing. An occasional snapping underfoot. Then the final three cars come.
The family get out and we greet each other with handshakes and hugs. They are grey and worn. The solemnity and fragility of the moment has all my senses tuned high, tuned to the mood. And yet I am unprepared for the moment when it happens. Black-coated and shoed, the funeral men move to get the casket. There is no hearse for this moment. Just a single black car. At first I don’t even recognize what they are doing. They open the side door, reach in and pull out a little wooden box. And it hits me, explodes my insides like I have fallen on a grenade. The wail tries to escape my throat and moan itself into the world, into a grief spoken for every lamenting parent. And I thrust it down. Ruthlessly. Mercilessly. Freezing it. Strangling it in a blanket of concrete. I clutch onto my impassive mask of reserve for the occasion. Barely. The rest is a blur. Blanked from memory by the effort to crush my emotions. To maintain control. Say the right words. Bring comfort to the family. But I remember the box coming out of the backseat. The wrongness of it. The grief.
There is something tragic about a life cut short. A child. A young adult. Even when someone lives to be forty or fifty, it seems more difficult than when they live a life of seventy or eighty years. A long healthy life seems appropriate. Funerals are never easy. But with someone older there is the sense that their lives were fully lived. Destinies tried out. Work accomplished. Love attempted and engaged. And death seems not nearly as piercing then. Or when someone has been sick, or suffered. Or they have lived so long that they have lost the ability to experience the sights and sounds and colours and adventure that is the texture of life. But our feelings are an accommodation, an adjustment to the reality that mows everyone down in the end. We have to cope with it, find a way to come along side. Be ok with it. But really we are not. Because we know it is not supposed to be this way. We lose something on last days. Death is a wrongness. The unintended result of human choice. To grasp. To play God. To be monumentally independent. To eat and consume what is not ours. And now death is let loose in the world. Has its way. Is the ultimate end of the trajectory that arcs on its way from the brightness of first days.
But maybe, death is not the last word. Maybe it is not the end state. And maybe we know that or suspect it. It’s not that we can undo last days. Not that we can erase the crush of rubber and metal on flesh, or the placing of wooden caskets into frozen ground. But perhaps that last day can also be a new first day. A day when something new starts. Something in us must feel this is true for despite being smacked in the soul by every last day, we look for something more. It is an impulse that finds its language in talk about Heaven or Paradise. Nirvana, resurrection and reincarnation. And sometimes it feels a little confused. When I think about it all, about what people say, I feel a bit cheeky as well. I’m not sure I want to spend several thousand years playing my harp on a cloud. And I kind of like my own body. I don’t want to come back as a pudgy little angel thing. I wouldn’t know how to work the wings anyway. Though I guess I’d have time to learn.
And I have lots of thoughts about this, about what happens beyond death. If I go to heaven and do badly, do I fall back to earth and start all over as a baby? And the thing about paradise sounds ok, with the virgins and everything. But maybe that’s not so great for the women. Wouldn’t my wife feel a bit jealous? Plus, I don’t want to come back as a cow or a goat on my way to eternal nothingness. Besides, I get nothingness most nights when I go to sleep. I know that all those common ideas are a bit foolish and short of the mark. But even in popular culture, the thread is there. It’s all a way of saying that there is something more. We are not satisfied with death as the end. In fact, we don’t really believe it.