The Best Upper Division Essay

Amy Kingdom's Asleep

"Can I show you something in a lovely solid copper, offering superb value to the client seeking long-lasting protection? Or perhaps you’d be interested in the Colonial Classic beauty—18 gauge lead coated steel, seamless top, lap-jointed welded body construction? You must want color-matched shades and Nature-Glo—the ultimate in cosmetic embalming, right? And before you leave, here is the business card for our very own company grave-wear couturiere; she promises handmade original fashions—styles from the best in life for the last memory—dresses, men’s suits, negligees, and accessories. Your grandmother was a special woman, wasn’t she? Doesn’t she deserve the best?"

She’s dead. Or as we "death denying" Americans prefer to say, Grandma has passed on, passed away, exited, expired, left us, or perhaps gone west. You may now consult a funeral trade magazine like Mortuary Management (where Harvey Brothers Funeral Home advertises these fine coffins and services mentioned above) to begin what Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death Revisited, calls the "funeral transaction." But before we explore the business end of Grandma’s departure, let’s go back in time. Back to the last couple of years, when she was living. Or perhaps we should say—to the last couple of years, when she was in the process of dying.

"I should be gone—long gone," she said. "There's no place for me anymore," she said. "It is no longer a world meant for me. It's different now." You coughed nervously and fidgeted in your seats and your faces turned red. Someone mumbled something like, "Oh Grandma, don't be silly," and you continued on with your conversation. And nobody stopped to think. She will die.

But you were conditioned from early in life to live as though you are immortal. You search for the key to forever, so sure that it will be found. Maybe it will be a magical fountain of water, or perhaps it will be a drug, or a cream, or a spray. But it will be something—it must be something. So you deny death; you don’t give it a place on your list of accepted dinner conversations. You stick with safe things that don’t threaten your comfort or confidence. You talk about the weather.

Our whole country talks about the weather.

My family in England laughs at us. We're so touchy, they say. And the rest of their country agrees. When my mother, who is American, met my father's family in England for the first time, there were quite a few moments of uncomfortable silence. At dinner, after a few glasses of sherry, the conversation shifted from wedding plans to death. What do you want to happen when you die? My grandfather decided he wanted to be cremated and sprinkled over his prized rose garden. My aunt wanted to be buried with her cookbook just in case she hadn't mastered the cheese-and-tomato quiche before she died. My grandmother wanted to be stuffed and placed on the mantle in her bathrobe. My mother cried in the bathroom for two hours.

Fifteen years later, my grandfather did die. And his ashes were spread over his rose garden—just as he had wished. And after his death?…Of course, his family cried, and so did those who loved him, or only just knew him. But after that?…They talked about him. They remembered everything about him—his tool shed, his white mustache, his soft hands, his gentleness, his tendency to answer "Yes dear" to practically anything while he was reading the morning paper, his ability to stir a cup of tea for twenty minutes, his huge smile, his chuckle—every story every person he ever met could remember. And that is how England grieves. Not by forgetting and denying, but by remembering and appreciating.

When my mother’s grandfather died the same summer, here in Pennsylvania, the process was drastically different. We knew he was going to die, but we never talked about it—before or after his death. He was buried in the traditional Jewish manner, the women in the family sat shiva, everyone cried, and no one spoke. He was an amazing man, renowned for being willing to "take the shirt off his back for anyone who wanted it." But no one talked about his black hair, that was still quite black at seventy-five, his mischievous smile, his on-the-spot stories that he told to every child he could find, his perfect Donald Duck impression, his terrible driving. We kept silent; it would "hurt too much to remember." We were concerned about the funeral—the flowers, the coffin, the limousines—and that was it.

We don’t ask for help to deal with our grief. We won’t share. But when the

d-word happens, we need someone to help us with the funeral. Enter: The Harvey Brothers. And here also lies the necessity of a chapter in Leroy Bowman’s The American Funeral entitled, "The Bargaining Situation: Family and Undertaker." Bowman says that the most universal force playing on the family at the time it meets the funeral director is the sense of guilt. In the negotiations it is seldom, if ever, referred to, and is undoubtedly unrecognized at the time as guilt. It is the inner drive, however, which responds most compulsively when the undertaker accuses the clients, by word or implication, of little love for the dead if the funeral falls short of the most expensive outlay the family can scrape together. Negotiations. Bargaining. Clients.… Business. And as the National Funeral Service Journal states quite matter-of-factly:

A funeral is not an occasion for a display of cheapness. It is, in fact, an opportunity for the display of a status symbol which, by bolstering family pride, does much to assuage grief. A funeral is also an occasion when feelings of guilt and remorse are satisfied to a large extent by the purchase of a fine funeral. It seems highly probable that the most satisfactory funeral service for the average family is one in which the cost has necessitated some degree of sacrifice. This permits the survivors to atone for any real or fancied neglect of the deceased prior to his death….

We gasp and we shake our heads in outraged disbelief that we are so ruthlessly taken advantage of. Yet we let it happen. Lord Essex said, "How long are we to be subjected to the tyranny of custom and undertakers? Truly it is…costly; ruinous to many; hateful, and an abomination to all; yet submitted to by all, because none have the moral courage to speak against it and act in defiance of it." But perhaps we need to point our finger disapprovingly at the funeral industry. We wouldn’t want that finger, like a loaded gun, pointing at ourselves, would we?

Bowman boldly suggests that guilt felt by a surviving member of the family is sometimes a sense of shame because he fails to be grief stricken by the death, and therefore feels he is falling short of the pattern of sorrow expected of him by the community. In The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann refers to this guilt potential: "What we call mourning for our dead is perhaps not so much grief at not being able to call them back as it is grief at not being able to want to do so." Do you shift in your seat?

When we question funeral service providers about their motives, we hear a lot about tradition, and religion, and history of Western civilization, and all that noble God's-will-and-plan conjecture. The religiously educated can shake their heads and cluck their tongues disapprovingly, however. Because, as much as we'd like to, we can't hold Judeo-Christian beliefs or rituals responsible for the purchase of a $7,000 casket or off-white high heels that must match the silk suit and the lining of the coffin.

The Roman Catholic Church requires the following, simple instructions to be observed: (1) That the body be decently laid out; (2) that lights be placed beside the body; (3) that a cross be laid upon the breast, or the hands laid on the chest in the form of a cross; (4) that the body be sprinkled with holy water and incense; and (5) that the body be buried in consecrated grounds. The Jewish religion specifically prohibits display in connection with funerals: no adornment of the plain wooden coffin, no flowers, no plumes, no velvet palls, no show or display of wealth. In Israel today, uncoffined burial is the rule, and the deceased is returned to the earth in a simple shroud. The Church of England's Book of Common Prayer makes no mention of coffins in connection with funeral services—it simply refers to the corpse or the "body."

But not us. Not you.

You ignored her at the dinner table, because she was being ridiculous. And now you call The Harvey Brothers, and they go to work on Grandma. You decide to go with the Colonial Classic; it has a seamless top after all. You get Nature-Glo, because it’s the best kind of embalming material there is—and Grandma deserves the best, right? You make sure that her lipstick matches her nail polish. She didn’t ever really wear scarves when she was alive, but the couturiere insists that it makes her look sophisticated and elegant—and it’s only fifteen dollars more.

They do all of this, and you pay for it, to create what funeral directors call the "memory picture." The burden of the claim is that the "restorative" operation of the undertaker is of great and lasting value in bereavement and the adjustive process. The truth is, though, there is no real psychological evidence that this "memory picture" stops the tears any earlier. But funeral directors scrunch their foreheads with concern and sympathy as they tell you the benefits of a makeover, and you write the check for the silk dress and the Clinique foundation. But perhaps a vision of Grandma in pearls and a scarf is better than remembering the grandmother who begged for your attention at the dinner table. Now she looks peaceful; she looks like she’s sleeping.

Not dead, just sleeping.

And as she sleeps, we, ourselves, keep bungee jumping, and skydiving, and smoking, and fighting, and begrudging people we love, or want to love. Because there will always be another tomorrow. But by ignoring death, we ignore those who are dying. We ignore our grandmothers and great-grandfathers. And they die alone.

And perhaps that is, and will continue to be, our culture's ritual for dealing with death. Just as elderly Eskimos in Greenland who can no longer contribute to their society may walk off alone, never to be seen again. Or like a Native American tribe where dying elders may be given a departure ceremony at which they are honored, then ritually killed. Or as in England, where the deceased are constantly remembered, appreciated, and celebrated. Maybe our ritual is silence.

 

Prizes:

George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes