I remember first becoming aware of death by imagining death, though not my own. One might expect the double insulation of imagining death and imagining it of another to provide double solace from the alternative means of becoming so aware. But I would have rather died.
The moment arrived, quite accidentally, while minding my own business, lying on the floorboard behind the driver’s seat of our family’s ’70-something Buick. We were on our way home to Indiana from our extended family trip to Ocean Isle, NC, where we annually gathered with my better looking side of the family in their better part of the country. My father reached his hand back signaling for mine. I held his hand with both of mine. Suddenly, lightening struck in my memory and I was brought back to another hand I had touched only weeks prior. It was a dead hand.
I must have been about five years old. It was my first funeral. Actually it was the wake. A friend’s great grandmother had died and I guess I had reached the age that a person should start looking at other kids’ great grandparents, dead, a kind of necessary rite to help prepare me for a world in which the oldest people are systematically in the habit of falling off the radar. But I was as dispassionate about this lady’s death as any child is about any other child’s great grandmother’s life. There’s good distance between a five year-old and a ninety-five year-old. And it’s better to introduce death on the far end of the gap before it begins its inevitable process of closing that gap, sometimes in leaps and bounds.
So I was told Matthew’s great grandmother was going to go live in heaven and we were going to go see her off. Heaven was about as concrete as death at the time, and now the two were welcomed into a kind of unholy matrimony in the undiscriminating image pool of my childhood mind. All the same. Death and heaven were both chalked up to things that have nothing to do with being a child. At that time, neither really had anything to do with Jesus either. Jesus was still more like an invisible heart stent that was given to all children en masse by volunteer surgeons at Vacation Bible School. If Jesus ever got into heaven, it would only be through the vehicle of some kid’s heart. But heaven was reserved for dead people, and death was reserved for old people, so as long as I was still a kid, Jesus was safe and I was too. And I had all this sorted out at a young age, because my dad was a pastor.
Walking in the funeral parlor, two things seemed immediately out of place. First, the funeral director’s smile—it was a commanding smile, either entirely artificial or entirely too eager for the occasion. Second, everything else. Almost everything was coated in a rather unconvincing white. The flooring, stairs included, was carpeted with a blanket of what looked like the swollen tips of overly handled yarn. The walls were nicotine. Worst of all was the lights, the kind you can hear and cannot dim. They were naked and not ashamed and made everything else feel naked and ashamed. The house was haunted with a clinical glow that made the hard black shoes and starchy human outlines all the more sarcastic. Nor did it help that the rooms were small and ceilings were low. It had obviously once just been somebody’s house. I couldn’t tell if everything was trying not to be a house or rather trying too hard to make everyone feel at home, like when nobody feels at home at a church that tries to make everybody feel at home by not feeling like a church. In all such attempts, everything is blasphemed among the gentiles: homes, funeral homes, churches, and heaven. And this was no exception. It was a mix-matched monstrosity, like a heaven filled with old dead people. At that point, I just wanted to go home, and I sure as hell didn’t want to go to heaven.
Also, the strained faces seemed to belong more to the environment than the bodies they were attached to. A few faces were strained like they had been turned inside out, like the lights, the soul in the fully ‘on’ position. They did ugly things with their lips that you wouldn’t do if you could help it, at least not in that lighting. Most of the faces were strained in just the opposite way, trying so hard to match the ones not trying, though mostly trying in the eyes, not willing to match the lower region quiver for quiver.
I think I remember the experience so vividly because it is the first time I realized that the world of adults is a pretend world because adults themselves, by and large, are actors, at least most of the time. The whole thing was as unconvincing as a movie with a split-second audio delay. I could actually see with my eyes the various distances between individuals and their place in time. There were a few who were consumed in the present moment, those who either could not or cared not to save face. But most kept some measured distance from that moment of death. I was learning that day something about the relationship between being and time or, less philosophically, empathy and being human.
Being human has something to do with being cut off from the whole and yet somehow still part of it. Humans are at once islands of consciousness and a sea of connectedness. Empathy describes the gravity in the tide on every shore, pulling fragments of sand into the sea and blurring the lines of selfhood. And it becomes far more empirically measurable whenever death is in the air, because grief is the sharp other edge of empathy, and it is the edge that crashes against the surface at death and pulls something in the human out like a riptide, something irreversibly lost at sea.
Empathy with the dead is a kind of death, because it reveals the capacity for life to be shared like a hypostatic union. It reveals that the archipelago of human life is not void of isthmuses. We call those sandy land bridges love. Grief, then, or empathy with the dead, is experienced as a sharing in the loss of a life that was shared together in love. It hurts like you would imagine death hurting if death were something you could feel. Turns out you can. And so, humans can feel death and the people looking at the ones feeling it can almost see death in the manifestation of their grief, like the way you can see a demon when it manifests through its human host, or like the way you can see a baby when it kicks a woman’s belly from the inside. Grief throws and thrusts the soul around with such irrepressible immediacy that the embodied bereaver is contorted into the shape of a wordless groan, or of Edvard Munch’s Scream.
Grief is love’s wild groping for its beloved in love’s refusal to die. It is love’s desperate dive into the infinite abyss in a futile search for the wholeness that gave birth to it. No love is an island. Love is an isthmus. Love is a singular word that exists only as it cradles together plural referents, like the word pregnancy or God. People die and love does not, and so every life shared in love will inevitably share the cradle with death. And so God gives us grief to teach us something about Being and time.
But on this occasion there was not much of a sense of a love flailing about in protest, like I would eventually see the first time I went to a little kid’s funeral. There was a general sense that, well, it was time. This woman had already extended most of herself into that hospitable abyss in the loss of her nearests. She was more grief than love. And the great majority seemed entirely removed from a sincere capacity to enter into the the moment. There was stuffy proximity and infinite distances. As humans, we’re not good at acting out death.
I was shuffled from the crowd of strained faces into a single-file line of shifting eyes waiting to see the main attraction. Surely, for most this was the ideal scenario—getting to see a real live dead person without having to care. Since most people at the funeral of a great grandmother are almost entirely dispassionate it allows them to be wildly curious. But nobody wants to look at anybody else because they don’t want to be found out and don’t really know what to say, and perhaps because they all feel a little ashamed that they really just want to look at the corpse.
But as a five year-old I was free of all that pretense. With brows at attention and heels as well, I finally got my first glimpse—but what I saw was not a real live dead person. It was not even a person. It was a kind of rubberized memory of a person. It was very out of place, the most out of place. And this was my first time seeing the inside of a casket, which seemed less like a home for a person who couldn’t feel and more like a vehicle designed to tumble people safely down a mountainside. This made the ex-person look all the more out of place or all the more like a crash dummy with bad makeup. When it was finally my turn to receive my ten second introduction to death, I stepped into position, looked intently at the stranger, and next thing I know we’re holding hands on the first date.
It was an accident, or kind of an accident—an impulse. Death was in my reach, and I seized it. I remember being surprised, first that I was touching this hand, and second, what really stuck out to me, surprised by how cold it was. It wasn’t cold like ice is cold; it was just cold like a hand is not. There was something downright inhuman about this hand, about this face, about this whole situation (and maybe especially that funeral director). And not in a way that made me understand the reality or finality of death, but which almost seemed to render death unreal, even impossible. It was hard to take death seriously since it belonged to something so obviously not alive. Humans are alive, even old ones.
It wasn’t until I remembered the hand of that corpse while holding my father’s thick, warm hand that I became aware of death in any meaningful sense. Death meant the negation of all things. It wasn’t that I suddenly realized everyone would die. It was the overwhelming fore-shadow that came with the realization that if everyone would one day die, this hand would die, if every hand would one day feel cold like this hand does not, one day this hand would feel cold like this hand does not. This twice-removed encounter with death changed my life. The world became a sea of hungry hungry hippos eating away at love, carving one land mass into millions of castaways until all became sinking sand. But it wasn’t the all that mattered. I still didn’t care about anyone’s great grandmother. It was the prospect of this hand dying, which could not be replaced with the resurrection of a thousand others.
It is not the inevitable death of every person that makes death so unbearable; it is the inevitable death of love that makes certain deaths so unbearable. In my utter wickedness, I can stand the thought of damn near all the peoples on earth returning to the dust, but I cannot, to this day, stand the thought of a handful, my loved ones, returning to the dust. That thought was sent on a rotation in my mind that day and I could not hold it still. It began to consume everyone in its wheel, beginning in that Buick and working its way across the killing fields of my home town that until then had just been made of corn. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t not think about it. It was an idea more powerful than all my other ideas, consuming them in the way death does everything. I could do nothing about it. It had to be, and I knew it. I was thrust into life, into love, and I would be thrust out of both. We all would, and there was no solace to be found in any one being thrust out before another. The prospect of my death was no more or less tragic than the prospect of the death of those I love. The death of life is only tragic at all because it is the death of love, or at least the half-death of it, which is always more painful than whole death.
I started to discover in that moment just how deep the soul goes. I kept holding my father’s hand, and the more I thought about not being able to, the deeper it went. By the end of the trip, I had drilled aching figure-eight canyons throughout my soul with a searching sadness that has never since been able to locate his origin or its end. I’m still looking for home. Indeed, love is so bent up toward eternity, it seems, that it refuses to tire out in the way our bodies refuse not to. And so I live and I look and I long. I love, therefore I’m damned.