Words about death

We buried my father a few weeks ago. He and my mother had bought plain Trappist coffins for themselves years ago, to spare us children the trouble. But my father’s house, even though it had many rooms, was short on space, because it was so full of books — books to sell, books to read, books to just . . . have. And the coffins were also full of books. Books everywhere. Think of all those words, words, words.

Some years ago, when my sister lived there for a while, her little son took a marker and scribbled on the side of the casket, as kids do. I think he must have been pre-literate, because it almost looks like a letter, but maybe not. Who knows what he was trying to write. Whatever intentions the child had went down into the grave with my father’s body.

If this sounds grim, I’m telling it wrong. We all thought it was hilarious. That’s something my father would say: “You’ll go to your grave not knowing,” with a satisfied wiggle of his eyebrows. He loved having a secret, and he loved having a joke. And he loved talking about death.

At the cemetery the rain dripped off my hood and onto my virus mask, down my rain jacket, off the lame bunch of flowers I had bought at the supermarket, because I didn’t know what else to do. So lame.

When my father died, I had to ask my friends how I was supposed to respond to people who had sent Mass cards. I wanted to know if it was all right to thank them via email, or if I needed to send out paper cards of thanks. The part of my mind that wasn’t crying for my father was fascinated by the flourishing of social problems that sprung up overnight surrounding his death.

If someone I don’t know expressed sympathy on Twitter, was it weird to “like” their sympathy? Would it be offensive to tell a mutual friend of my brother that he probably wasn’t ready to receive any casseroles? I was afraid I’d have to come up with something to say at the burial, and I didn’t know what to say.

Was it okay to tell a little joke as the coffin was lowered into the grave? I could hardly help myself, so I whispered it to my husband, who laughed; and then I worried that the laugh might have been caught on the livestream that my brother’s girlfriend was sending to my siblings who couldn’t be there because of the virus.

It occurred to me, nobody knows how to do this. Nobody knows what to say or how to act. This is true any time anyone dies, because there is nothing more unknowable than death. How we love to talk about death. But the ones who can still talk are the only ones who don’t know what they’re talking about.

The only people who understand what it means are, by definition, not telling! So sue me, this makes me laugh, and I know my father would find it funny, too. He spent his whole life talking about death. I wonder what he thinks now.

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14 thoughts on “Words about death”

  1. If there’s any time in life which belongs to you, it’s the time when you bury your loved ones. And particularly when you bury your father or mother. Mourning is so personal isn’t it? Humour connects you with your father. A tribute of sorts. No explanation or justification needed.

    I echo the other comments here- it must have been especially difficult having to lay rest your beloved father during these very unusual times. And equally for your siblings who couldn’t attend because of the virus. Prayers for you and yours Simcha.

  2. thank you, this has been such a difficult time for you and your family, and hearing your thoughts on going through the process is beautiful and very moving…. praying for you all.

  3. Years ago my grandpa had rolls of these neon orange oval stickers made with our last name in black lettering and passed them out to my dad and his sisters. The family used them to label anything and everything- they were super convenient! It even became a joke among high school and college friends who noticed the bright orange labels on DVDS, luggage tags, etc. When we were at the cemetery saying our final goodbyes to my grandpa, my aunt expressed her regret that none of us had thought to bring one of those stickers to put on his coffin. It gave us all a good laugh and we know my grandpa would have gotten a kick out of it!
    I’m so sorry you all have to grieve and lay your dad to rest in the midst of this craziness.

  4. I love this. My brother died unexpectedly years ago, when he was 30, and it was four days before Christmas. When we were at the funeral home, doing the bizarre–choosing a coffin–I suddenly remembered the year I was sixteen years old and came down with appendicitis on Christmas Eve Day. Christmas was postponed that year until New Year’s Day, and my brother, in all his nineteen-year-old self-concern, said to me, “Boy, you sure know how to ruin Christmas.”

    So right there in the funeral home, in front of my grief-stricken parents and relatives, I started laughing and said, “Boy, he sure got me back for ruining Christmas!”

    Nobody got it, obviously. But my brother would have approved. He would have laughed. Maybe he was laughing. What has held me together is remembering our shared sense of humor, the jokes that only two siblings without any other siblings (and a pair of humorless parents) can have together.

        1. I didn’t mean to minimize the tragic aspect of the situation (and obviously this situation is pretty much all tragedy). I guess what I meant is that our relationship with our loved ones continues after their death, and bringing to mind a relevant and humorous memory from the person’s life can strengthen that ongoing connection, if that makes sense. It certainly won’t come anywhere close to negating the grief that simultaneously occurs with the separation of death.

            1. No problem at all! I was grateful for the opportunity to clarify my comment. I should have done that the first time around.

  5. The first part of this really made me think of this video…seems like something that would make you laugh.


    Beautifully expressed. I had a miscarriage right as this whole Covid mess started, right after my husband started working from home, and it was…weird. It felt strange in the context of what was going on, and the little funeral we had felt thrown together and…I dunno. “Lame” kinda captures it (though I’m glad we did it). We planted a little tree, and it’s growing, so we’ll have a reminder of little James around. It’s there.

    Thank you for writing this. I know it’s not quite the same situation, but it’s nice to see someone handling something similar (though I imagine a more painful loss) in a similar way.

  6. Oh, Simcha. This is so beautiful, and it makes me cry.

    Those who do not understand why you make jokes at your beloved father’s funeral are the same kind of people who think that your young nephew desecrated his grandfather’s coffin. Your father loved to laugh, and so do you. And the way that you both laugh (and laughed) is in keeping with your Jewish heritage of painful jokes that must be made to keep some kind of sanity in the middle of horror. I love how you bring that heritage into your Catholic faith. Thank you for bringing Jesus’ heritage back to us.

  7. I’m so sorry you have had to go through such a huge loss in the middle of the impossible situation our world is in. Not that there’s ever a good time to lose a parent, or anyone else, but having to go through it during social distancing must make it so much harder. Your father sounds like a great man, and looks like it in his photos.

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