Funerals suck. And they hurt. On so many different levels. If you were close to the deceased, you’re probably in a great deal of pain. Probably devastated. The sense of loss can be so all-consuming, so overwhelming, so suffocating. You feel like you’re drowning in it.
Grief is best articulated by those who view it from the middle distance. If you’re too far away from it, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about. If you’re too close to it, if the wound is fresh, and you’re staring the monster in the face right now, you’re probably too stunned to speak.
No one prepares you for how profoundly physiological it is. Your chest tightens so much that your breathing grows shallow, frightfully shallow, almost asthmatic. Your head swims with a dizziness that’s halfway between roller-coaster gross and the drunk spins. You shake uncontrollably from time to time, for no apparent reason. And you feel really nauseous. You think you might puke. Sometimes you do.
Even if you weren’t particularly close to the deceased, seeing others in so much pain, people you know and love, triggers a powerful empathetic response. Before long, you’re quite literally feeling their pain. There’s no such thing as an easy funeral, but those that force us to confront our own mortality are far harder than those that do not.
1. Funeral for the Sinful: Everybody saw this coming. The deceased made bad decisions which led to their untimely end. An addict who overdosed on heroin. A drunk driver who careened off a cliff. A career criminal stabbed to death in prison. A chain-smoker felled by lung cancer. Though deeply sad, this kind of funeral is, for most people, existentially speaking, the easiest to attend.
2. Funeral for the Elderly: Everybody saw this coming. And you can’t blame grandma for dying at 94. Nor can you deny the fact that her fate will one day be yours. But there’s no reason to dwell on this thought. You’re in your thirties or forties or fifties. And 94 seems so very far away.
3. Funeral for the Innocent: Nobody saw this coming. A 20-year-old athlete who drops dead of a heart attack as a result of a rare genetic defect. A 36-year-old hospital employee who was accidentally shot by a police officer whilst driving to work on a bicycle. A 32-year-old mother of three who dies of breast cancer despite a lifetime of clean living. A 43-year-old academic who randomly chokes to death on a piece of steak at a conference. “When it comes to death,” Epicurus maintained, “all men live in a city without walls.” When the innocent die, we’re forced to remember this.
Hadn’t seen her in 15 years when I read the obituary. Friend says it was suicide.
“Didn’t you have a crush on her?”
“Yep. Never did anything about it though.”
We ran in the same circles, and ended up at the same house parties, but she was a few years older than me, and I’m sure you remember what a big deal that is when you’re in high school.
Last time I saw her she was walking away, byebyeing her way to the front door. Her sexy swimmer shoulders were that lovely golden hue, the color of toasted white bread, and her straight blonde hair had been rendered curly by the humid alchemy of July. It was sublime: watching it swing like a pendulum, as she sauntered off, into the warm embrace, of the Montreal night.
They say she ran right into the burning building to save them, even after the smoldering remains of her three children were borne away before her very eyes. The cigarette had been hers.
Some of us would rather die than change, into the hunchbacked custodian, of a life, built by mistake.
I’ll always remember Suzanne Leduc as one of the funniest people I have ever personally known. She could make me laugh so hard it hurt, and she could do so at unexpected times, and in unexpected places: like the supermarket. One time, for instance, she just randomly opened up a box of cereal in a grocery store on Wellington Street and fished out the prize to see if it matched the one in the picture on the box. When it didn’t, she went to the front and insisted on filing a complaint with the manager. Dude was so overawed by her righteous indignation that he actually went along with it. Never even asked about the open box. Never asked to see a bill. Nothing. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. Still don’t know how she was able to hold it together. Suzanne was a comic genius.
Ever since I became a parent, I’ve had this terrible recurring nightmare. In the dream, my kid is lying down on the train tracks. And I can see a train coming. But I can’t seem to do anything about it. I scream at the top of my lungs, but no one can hear me. I flail my hands around wildly, but no one can see me. I try to run to him—try to save him from the train—but I’m always too far away. Sometimes I’m not fast enough.
Suzanne Leduc, one of my oldest friends, died of a drug overdose last August. It occurs to me now, and only in light of her death, that being the parent of someone who struggles with serious addiction must be a living hell. In fact, to be a little more specific, it must be like watching your kid die in slow motion for years. On some level, you must know that that day is going to come, long before it does. You’ve gotta know that you’re going to get that call at some point. You can see that slow train coming. And you see your kid on the tracks. But there’s nothing you can do: nothing you can do but watch, helplessly, from a distance, and yell your fucking head off, in silence.
Bevan made the best mixtapes. Seriously, they were works of art. My favorite was one he gave me for my 18th birthday: The Geighties: Babymaking Music for the Whole Family. But they’re all dead. Everyone on the mixtape: David Bowie, Prince, Lou Reed, Michael Jackson, and now George Michael. They’re all dead. But their music lives on in my head. I can hear The Geighties right now: that delicious gender-bending blend of eighties-era eroticism: those pulsating pregnant pauses, and all of that beautifully baroque battiness.
“Well, guys, didn’t really ask for the death sentence. But if that’s all you’ve got, I’ll take it in black.” That’s what my sarcastic friend said, before blowing out the candles on her 32nd birthday cake. She was just like that: you know, the kind of person who simply refuses to take life seriously, the kind of person who can turn anything into a joke, even a breast cancer diagnosis.
Of course there were chinks in her body armor, cracks in her bulletproof butch persona; and, in them, we could see the fear and the terror and the doubt peeking out at us, like shy forest creatures with big eyes. They were there: right there: in the quivering corners, of her sardonic smile.
When I saw her two years later, in the palliative care unit, she said she thought the oncologist’s diagnosis was the worst diagnosis she would ever hear; until, that is, she got a second diagnosis from her uncle, the bible-thumping fundamentalist, with the “Jesus Loves You” t-shirt: “The wages of sin are death,” he thundered through the phone. “God’s punishing you for being a lesbian! You brought this cancer on yourself.” Before hanging up on his dying niece, he promised to pray for her.
Worse still, she said, was a third diagnosis she got from her high-strung, Prius-driving sister, the health-obsessed housewife with rock-hard yoga abs. Her sister was doing a “cleanse” when she got the call. Maybe that’s why she was on edge. Maybe that’s why she got mad at her little sister, for having cancer. Maybe that’s why she told her off: “Can’t live like you’ve been living, and get away with it forever. Been telling you for years now: quit the lesbo-fat-is-beautiful shit, drop 40 pounds, and get in shape! You brought this cancer on yourself.” Before hanging up on her dying sister, she mumbled something under her breath, something my friend couldn’t quite make out, something about how hard this was gonna be on the kids (but my friend had no kids).
Words like “fascist” and “communist” aren’t particularly useful when it’s hard to tell the difference between life in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. That’s why Hannah Arendt said we needed a new name for this 20th-century manifestation of an age-old problem. I’m referring, of course, to the problem of evil, which is always, to some extent, a problem of naming.
We found ourselves similarly situated at the funeral, as we gazed down, upon the lifeless body, of our 34-year-old friend. Because words like “secular” and “religious” aren’t particularly useful when health-nuts and fundamentalists start seeing eye-to-eye, when the heartlessness coming out of the health-club is indistinguishable from the heartlessness coming out of the church, when the metaphysics of the yoga retreat converge with the metaphysics of the bible camp.
But we don’t need a new word like “totalitarianism” for her uncle’s diagnosis, nor do we need a new word for her sister’s diagnosis. Plenty of nasty old words will do, though I can’t, for the life of me, seem to settle on one. I keep looking for a word and yet all I seem to find is a scripture: “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
We sat in a conspiratorial circle: deep down in the dark dank, hormonal dungeon, of an unfinished Ville-Émard basement. Aside from the flickering flame of a drippy dollar-store candle, the room was pitch black. My best friend’s parents were out of town, and Alex Vinetti and I were alone, at last, with girls—playing that timeless 13-year-old game, which might as well be called Let’s Break the Sexual Tension by Scaring the Shit Out of Each Other. It’s a game that, like hockey, consists of three periods. In the first, we recounted with deadly seriousness every scary ghost story we knew. In the second, we played Ouija—until the planchette developed a demonic mind of its own; Christina screamed bloody murder; and Kim locked herself in the bathroom.
Of course this was all just a kind of awkward adolescent foreplay, all just a prelude to the main event: the third period, wherein we’d get to play Truth or Dare, an ingenious game that allows the young to rise—above their insecurities—and soar, far above and beyond good and evil: a game that allows the young to guilelessly and guiltlessly give-in to their capacious curiosity, without shame, or consequence. Though the musty air was practically pregnant with pheromones, we were all just too young, and too chickenshit, to talk about sex. So we talked about death, with all of the erotic intensity, and attention to detail, of a bird of paradise, busily at work, on his palatial love nest.
“What’s the last thing you wanna hear before you die, John?”—pretty sure Christina came up with that gem.
“The last thing I wanna hear is the sweet summer sound of a red-winged blackbird.”
Con-ca-reeeee-ah. Con-ca-reeeee-ah. Con-ca-reeeee-ah. “It’s a sound that never fails to fill me with a half-crazy happiness, a sound that elicits a rapturous response, immediately and inexplicably, a response that wells up from unfathomed depths, from the very ground of my being, a delightfully demonic sound that possesses me, in an instant, with a kind of divine madness.”
I was waiting in line at the Hopkins Post Office on September 11, 2001, absentmindedly watching the idiot box someone put up there in the corner, to make us forget about time.
We watched the news reports apathetically at first. We had nothing better to do. Then the first plane hit. Then the second. And then everybody forgot why they were at the post office. Baltimore went nuts. The country went nuts. As did many of our friends.
Our friend Darin died that day. A plane—a fucking plane!—crashed into his office. He was so young. And the sweet memory of his wedding day was still so fresh.
An antisemitic conspiracy theorist once told me that all the Jews who worked in the buildings targeted for destruction received a phone call on the morning of September 11th warning them to stay away from work: “That’s why there were no Jewish causalities, John. Not one.” I wanted to punch him. But all I could think about was how sad it was:
to be standing here in the same suit, in the same synagogue. I kept looking around and thinking: Darin and Devora were married here, right here, just six months ago. The groom’s barber had been a little overzealous but the bride’s dress was divine.
We were just about to leave for the funeral when Anna-Liisa decided to take another pregnancy test. It came back positive. That was Tristan. Our firstborn. What a strange funeral that was:
to be so elated, and yet so sad, at one and the same time. Could swear I heard King David singing softly in the temple that day: “You turned my mourning into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.”
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here: A Love Letter to Montréal (2017)