(About a 7 minute read)
I worked after hours when I was in high school in a funeral home owned by perhaps the kindest and most compassionate man in town — in a town with a decent number of kind and compassionate men and women.
In addition to both his kindness and his compassion, H.P (for Herbert Paul) combined a matter-of-fact realism about death with an easy going attitude towards it. For instance, he had a number of gentle — but wholly appropriate — jokes that he was apt to tell to the families at visitations in order to soften their grief.
Of course, the jokes weren’t jokes about the deceased, nor about death itself. I don’t completely recall them now, but I think most had to do with preachers or people petitioning Saint Paul to pass through the gates of heaven.
Although his jokes might poke fun at a stereotypical salesman or two, H.P. was notably uncritical of actual people. In the years I knew him, I never knew him to more profoundly criticize a man or woman than to call them a “character”. But even that usually wasn’t so bad — H.P. called even people he admired “characters” if they had any outstanding traits.
There came a day, however, when H.P. actually spit out the word “character”.
On a hot summer day, we had an overflow crowd for the patriarch of a very large family, the local Smith clan. We had to seat people on the stairs for every other space was already taken. The air conditioning was not up to the task of disposing of that much body heat, and to cap a miserable funeral — the preacher was a hellfire and brimstone man.
We in the staff sat at a table in the back of the home where we could clearly hear every word and podium thump of the man. I think I can still recall the exact words with which he began his eulogy.
“Brother _________ Smith was to us on earth a good man, but we do not truly know whether he was a good man in the eyes of the Lord. I suppose he is in Heaven now with our Maker, but it is likely he is in Hell, for that’s where most of us sinners go when we die.”
Simultaneously, everyone of us on staff looked at Conrad, our informal leader. Conrad had gone stony with disapproval. The preacher pounded on for two full hours that day — not once again so much as uttering the word “Heaven”, let alone suggesting anyone was going there — until H.P. himself mercifully approached the podium and whispered to him to bring it all to an end.
After everyone had left the grave site that day, H.P. looked at our group and said in the purest tones of disgust, “The preacher was a character.”
Today I look back on those events to reflect that so much of the religion in this country takes death too seriously. I do not mean to imply there is no heaven nor hell. I do not know whether or not there are. But I know that even if there are, some folks take death too seriously.
They seem to seek to turn a family’s grief into blind terror.
Recently, I have posted a number of comments on adopting a playful attitude towards life — and yes, even towards death. You can read those comments here. After I posted, I got to thinking about playfulness towards death — is it really possible? What effect would it have on us if we could indeed approach death playfully? And what effect would it have on others?
I think an extraordinary woman once gave me in passing to her own death some insight into those questions.
Cheryl died two years ago this fall. She lived in the cottage next door to mine, and I had known her for a mere four years. My introduction to her came very soon after I moved in, for she was in the habit of sitting on her porch in all kinds of weather.
“You must be my new neighbor. I’m Cheryl. I’ve lived in this same cottage twenty years. Ever since John, the property manager, was a seventeen year old who only cut the grass. I don’t like people you know. I don’t mean to be rude, but I like animals better.”
As if to emphasize her point, she momentarily excused herself. She’d spotted the next door dog, called him by name, and then — taking a biscuit with her from a bag on her porch — she walked over to the fence to treat him.
We chatted only briefly after she got back. I wasn’t really taken aback by Cheryl’s designation of me as belonging to a suspect species — I got the sense she meant it in the spirit of, “You respect my boundaries, I’ll respect yours”, which I could agree with.
As it turned out, I was most likely right about that. Over the next four years, Cheryl and I became good — but always respectful — neighbors.
We did not hang out with each other, she never invited me in for a cup of tea, and she once even only grudgingly accepted a small gift I gave her (“I don’t want to think I own you anything, Paul”), but we chatted with each other on her porch often enough, and she was unfailingly pleasant to me.
I grew fond enough to think of her in mildly derogatory words — though I never once dared admit to her that in my head, she was “the impossible old coot”, and “that alarming neighbor of mine”. Cheryl herself was a wee bit more openly disparaging of me — or was it really openly fond? I wrote about one funny incident here.
At first, her chemotherapy seemed to have successfully eliminated the cancer that she had been diagnosed with about three years ago. The tests for it came back negative.
But the tests proved to be false. The cancer had never been killed out, and by the time the doctors realized she was still cancerous, they could predict only that she had at most eight weeks to live.
It must have been quite a roller coaster for her to have her hopes up like that, then crushed again. I think a lot of us would be broken by a ride like that.
Like most folks my age, I’ve known a few people who were declining into death. In my experience, it has always been awkward for me when visiting, and for them — apparently lonely. Lonely sadly made even more acutely lonely by the obvious awkwardness of their visitors.
H.P. himself had died the year I left his employ to attend university. The last time I’d seen him, he had shaken my hand in greeting, and we had made a few brief minutes of small talk before he hinted for me to leave.
The distance between us was obvious and painful. It seemed tangible enough that it wasn’t just confined to his manner or tone of voice, but could be seen in his eyes. We were, the two of us, on separate banks of an un-crossable river. What was really going though him — his real thoughts and feelings — were hidden from me, and I knew it. Hidden even better than I apparently was able to hide mine from him.
The next time and the next ever afterwards that I visited a dying person, it was always the same. I expected the same from Cheryl.
“Good news, Paul! I have eight weeks to live.”
“That’s a joke, right?”
“Not at all. The cancer’s come back. The hospital screwed up the tests that showed it was gone. That’s what I get for not taking care of it myself. Want a tip, Paul? Always process your own cancer tests.”
“I see. Just to confirm. You actually do have cancer? Forgive me, but I can’t tell how serious you are.”
“Yes, I do. The doctors give me eight weeks at most.”
“I hope they’re wrong.” I stumbled out what I thought would be the expected and acceptable sentiment.
“I hope they’re right. Paul, you’re not going to stop me no matter how hard you try, you sentimental fool. This is my chance to put to an end once and for all to those damn haircuts. I HATE haircuts, Paul.”
Cheryl’s honest, frank, but playful attitude towards her own death had a wholly unexpected effect on me. I felt close to her. Perhaps even emotionally intimate with her.
I also viscerally felt gratitude. She didn’t expect — let alone demand — anything but honesty from me. I felt no need to put on an awkward mask. And I felt gratitude for that.
Of course, I also both admired her and wondered if I myself would have her courage in the end. But not so much the courage to face death. I have faced death and I have had courage in the face of death.
No, I mean the courage to, in effect, tell others to put away their masks and to treat you and your circumstances as real. That kind of courage, I’m not sure I have.
All the while I knew her, Cheryl’s favorite expression had been, “It is what it is” — her equivalent of C’est la vie. She approached her death in that spirit too, a spirit of hard realism.
But I will always recall most now her other spirit, her spirit of playfulness. It was as if Cheryl was skipping like a child into her night.
The doctors were more or less right. She died six weeks after she first told me the cancer was back.