Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The House of Death

The House of Death by William Blake

It is the ceaseless labour of our life to build the house of death.
Michel de Montaigne

The extent to which one contemplates death is as accurate a barometer as any, I would think, of how out-of-step one is with our prevailing culture. I tend to think about death, a lot. And having just re-read Alexander Schmemann's For the Life of the World, I am struck by how prescient his observations from 1963 are, in this regard, for our contemporary secular society.

It would be a great mistake, however, to think of secularism as simply an "absence of religion." It is, in fact, itself a religion, and as such, an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it....Secularism is an "explanation" of death in terms of life. The only world we know is this world, the only life given to us is this life-so thinks a secularist-and it is up to us men to make it as meaningful, as rich, as happy as possible. Life ends with death. This is unpleasant, but since it is natural, since death is a universal phenomenon, the best thing man can do about it is simply to accept it as something natural. As long as he lives, however, he need not think about it, but should live as though death did not exist. The best way to forget about death is to be busy, to be useful, to be dedicated to great and noble things, to build an always better world. If God exists...and if He, in His love and mercy...wants to reward us for our busy, useful and righteous life with eternal vacations, traditionally called "immortality," it is strictly His gracious business. But immortality is an appendix (however eternal) to this life, in which all real interest, all true values are to be found.

Living "as though death did not exist" does indeed seem the way of the modern world. Not without irony, it is the American funeral industry itself (and the funereal habits/customs that have grown up around it) that perhaps best exemplifies our death-denying culture. And, as in most things, we have a unique take on death and dying here in the South. My wife and I have sometimes found humor in the funeral fetishes of her extended clan. "Visitations" are just that--a time to catch up with relatives and neighbors, perhaps to see who was "laid-out" in the next room and, of course, to critique the handiwork of the particular funeral home. These gatherings are carried off with all the solemnity of a backyard barbecue. At all costs, no one ever talks about the reality of the body in the next room. One great-aunt whose limited mobility eventually prohibited her from attending these events, used to minutely question those who did, sometimes asking if the deceased, ahem, "laid a good corpse." Two contemporary cousins--not at all aged--carry on the silliness. One, to my knowledge, has been planning her last rites for years, having chosen her funeral hymns 20 years ago. Unfortunately, she suffers from robust health, the age-old curse of hypochondriacs. Another spent all last year trying to convince family and friends, as well as a host of doctors, nurses and emergency room technicians in 4 hospitals that she was near death and in need of constant support and sympathy. Having failed at a memorable death, she has shifted tactics. This year is devoted to angling for the absolute best deal on her funeral "pre-need" policy, described as the "last thread hanging" in her life. One assumes that after this is arranged, she will lie down on her bed, fold her arms and await death...or the housekeeper, whichever comes first. Such ridiculous behavior is, of course, silly, self-absorbed, and ultimately sad. But even these antics prove Schmemann's point: all of this noise is merely avoidance and denial of the oncoming reality of death.

Several factors have converged to turn my thoughts in this direction. My readings these days come more and more from the Orthodox ascetical writers--St. Isaac, St. Silouan, Archimandrite Sophrony, Elder Ephrem, Elder Paisios, etc.--and this clearly is a factor. Participation in my first Orthodox funeral, recounted here and here also plays a part. A post by Rod Dreher regarding the recent loss of his grandmother, here put me in mind of my own mother's death. Gabriel's posts about the loss of his grandfather, here and here reminded me of the emptiness I felt, at age 8, of the loss of my granddad. Finally, Christopher Buckley recent article on the loss of parents Bill and Pat Buckley in 2007 and 2008, here, gave me pause for thought, as well as the lead quotation from Montaigne.

Christopher Buckley is a gifted writer, whose father was a genius and mother a flamboyant and outrageous grand dame. His account offers a fascinating peek into this rarefied atmosphere. Interestingly, his story generated not the least bit of envy on my part. Stringing lights on your yacht anchored in the Caribbean does not a Christmas make. I recall watching an interview in which he described his parents--not at all critically--as really two impossible people. I suspect they were indeed. But for all his father's literary and intellectual acclaim, and the social set over which his mother presided, the estate in Greenwich, the Swiss chalet and the salon on the Upper East Side--it made no difference in the end. From their son's account, their deaths were altogether pedestrian--empty hospital rooms, monitors, I.V.s, ventilators, oxygen tanks--and ultimately, quite sad. Going through life high, wide and handsome means less than nothing on that day. Christopher Buckley, son of the very observant Catholic Bill Buckley, is himself non croyant, which adds a further layer of melancholy to the account.

This is in sharp contrast to the stories told by Rod and Gabriel in their recent losses. I have quoted from Rod's post at length, below.

She "talked" silently with someone no one else could see for some time. She told my mother, "God tells me he will take care of me, and will take care of y'all." And then: "He wants me to go with him. Tell him I don't want to go yet." My mother told her that it was fine for her to leave, to go in peace. The old lady said no, it's not yet time, and to please let God know. So that's what my mother did. And then Helen's pain went away....I found myself thinking about the poor thing, lying in that bed, scared out of her wits, in excruciating pain, knowing her life was coming to an end -- and then God came, and ministered to her. Was it really Him? I don't know. But this afternoon, the presence of the Almighty, if only in her mind, eased the suffering of a dying woman. And one day, we will all be like she is tonight. Whether my grandmother had a hidden faith, or only this afternoon acknowledged her Creator, praise His holy name for coming to her at the hour of her death, and showing mercy....But that's not all that happened today in that hospital room. A greater miracle occurred, one that really touches me....This afternoon in that hospital room, my mother and her mother talked at length of old times, of happy things from her childhood. Helen never brought up the meanness of those days, and my mother wouldn't have wanted her to, not now. As it happened, Helen was baptized as a young woman in a Baptist church in small-town Mississippi, and had been active in the congregation with my mother as a little girl, until her husband put a stop to it. They talked about that, and all kinds of memories. Somehow, it made my mom (and, hearing her tell the story, me) see her mother in a new light, as a fellow sufferer in that household who was frightened and confused and powerless and desperately, achingly poor. I could hear in my mother's voice as she told the story of events in the hospital room today that her heart -- and my mom has a good heart -- was full of mercy and forgiveness for past wrongs, and what she had to bear alone. None of what happened back then mattered anymore. The past was past. No words of reconciliation were spoken, but they didn't have to be. The circle is complete. My mom is at peace, and so is my grandmother. Mercy won the day.

On some level, Helen's story reminded me of my mother, and her last hours on earth. Lucy was a complex woman. Her early life was harsh and brutal, and her marriage to my dad was very much an escape. My mother had many admirable qualities. She was thrifty, hard-working, fastidious, disciplined, strong-willed and plain-spoken. She was ferociously loyal to her blood kin. Mother did not gossip; she minded her own business and expected others to mind theirs. She was the most stoic person I ever met, never complaining about her plight in life, or feeling sorry for herself.

But as with all of us, there was a flip side. Her thriftiness bordered on miserliness. She never understood that there could be differences in opinion, only contradictions to what was right, which happened to be whatever she thought on a particular subject. In a similar vein, she never understood that being blunt was not always a virtue. Mother was suspicious of everyone beyond her immediate family connections, and she made few friends. She was not in the least bit sentimental. And like Christopher Buckley said about his mother, "I [n]ever once heard [her]utter a religious or spiritual sentiment."

Lucy came from a family of the most nominal of nominal Baptists, and of them I would say, with Montaigne, "nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know." She did have a Bible, but I never saw her open it. Her bedstead was purchased in 1954, when the style was to have cabinets with sliding doors built into the headboard. The Bible stayed in the right-hand cabinet, in the box it came in. To leave it out, would have meant just one more thing to dust. When I was young, I would sneak into her bedroom, get the Bible out of the box and look at the pictures. My sister has it now, perhaps still in its presentation box.

Unlike my background, my wife came from a church-going family. Soon after our marriage, we attended a family meal at my parent's house. I never remember saying grace over meals growing up, and my dad, perceptive as always, was sensitive to his new daughter-in-law's sensibilities. Before the meal, he asked my mother, somewhat rhetorically, if we shouldn't say grace before eating. My mother shot back with "Well why should we do that? We raised every bit of it ourselves." Technically, my mother was right; the vegetables came from our garden, and the beef from our cattle. Aside from the butter, flour, sugar, and tea, nothing was purchased. For that was my mother's religion--the old American canard that "the Lord helps those who help themselves." But my dad, raised in a Christian home, was rightfully shocked, recognizing the impart of my mother's words. She just looked at him, as if to say "well?" That is another similarity my mother shared with Mrs. Buckley--she never apologized for anything.

Time ran down for my mother, as it does for all. She outlived her husband, a son, a grandson, all five of her siblings and several nieces and nephews. I remember being with her in the doctor's office in September before her death in March. He told her what she already knew, namely that all that could be done, had been done, and any treatments thereafter would be sacrificing quality of life to quantity of life. She looked straight ahead at him and simply said, "Well, I'm not going to give up. And I'm not going to fall to pieces." And she didn't. In her last hospital stay before death, she told me that she loved all of us. That was her only real acknowledgment to us that her time was short. My wife and I brought her to her own bed, at her own home, where we watched over her for that last week. The morning before her death that night, Mother was a bit delirious, not in great pain, but drifting in and out of consciousness. She raised both of her arms, as if trying to wave, it seemed. And then she said "I just want to tell everybody hello." My sister had stopped by, and said, "we're right here, Mamma," or something to that effect. My mother did not really acknowledge that, but repeated, "I just want to tell everybody hello."

Who she was seeing, we could not see. But I had witnessed this before. About 15 years earlier, I was with her nephew--my cousin--at his death. We were not close; for he was much older, and while my maternal cousins were always close at hand, there was never much interaction between us. But we shared, I think, an unspoken understanding of the great tragedy and desolation that had befallen our common family. My cousin was soft-spoken and introspective, and I was told that in his youth he liked to be alone and read, as did his dad. But he went to Vietnam, and that changed things...as did a string of marriages. Finally, he succumbed to lung cancer while only in his mid 40s. At the time, my mother was undergoing her first round of chemotherapy, and my wife was staying with her. On the day of his death, I was alone with my cousin and his nurse. By that time he was a gaunt and hollow-eyed shadow of his former self. His 3rd wife, and his children from the 2nd wife, had gone to the funeral home to make arrangements. (For the life of me, I still cannot understand this. Could they not wait?) My cousin was no longer able to speak, and he had a wild-eyed look about him. But then he raised both arms above his head, slightly bent at the elbow. His nurse conjectured that he probably needed to have a bowel movement and was motioning for us to raise him from the bed. Following her lead, we linked hands and began to lift him up for that purpose. While doing so, his spirit left his body and he died in our arms.

I have thought often of this episode. I now believe the nurse was wrong as could be. For when my cousin raised his hands, I believe he was seeing/experiencing much the same thing as my mother, and Rod's grandmother. Even if only in their minds, it was a great mercy, an ease to their suffering and a consolation to those of us yet constructing our house of death.


s-p said...

A beautiful post, John. I was with my father in law when he breathed his last breath then prepared his body for an Orthodox burial. Being this close to death is necessary for our culture. I'm "on the road" and working on a Church at a monastery in California... I took the long route through the desert and came across a lot of death, both physical and metaphorical that I'm podcasting about on "Steve the Builder". Its sobering to consider the "constant remembrance of death" as a spiritual discipline. BTW, your mother sounds like Jimmy Stewart when he gave "thanks" and told God they did all the work but "thanks anyway".

John said...

Thanks, s-p. I've been following your accounts of the work in CA very closely. This is particularly of interest to me, as we are beginning to contemplate the building process ourselves at the mission here. I haven't listened to the podcasts in about a week, so it sounds as if I need to catch up on that. Looking back on it now, I find this an odd post for me, but one that I had to get out of my system, I suppose. And yes, my mother's attitude was very much like Jimmy Stewart's in "Shenandoah," a movie which still brings tears to my eyes.

elizabeth said...

May the Lord always have mercy.

I have found the Orthodox church funeral services to be the most real, healing and most true expression of grief. We recently had what in English we call cemetary day and a bunch of us always go to the grave of loved woman who died too young and singing Christ is Risen to her, spending time at her grave, eating the traditional bread and eggs, and pouring wine on her grave in the shape of a Cross (a Bulgarian tradition I am told) is one of the best things that could be done, I think...

Really makes me wish my (biological) family was Orthodox. Ah well.

I appreciate this post. Thank you.

Mimi said...

What a beautiful and heart-renderingly raw post. May your Mother's Memory be Eternal.

I was blessed to be with my Grandmother when she died - and your stories of your mother sound a lot like my Grandmother. It was an amazing experience to be with her in those final moments.

John said...

Elizabeth, that is indeed a beautiful tradition. I am not that familiar with the various Orthodox traditions regarding the burial places of loved ones. I remember from Georgian cemeteries that it was customary to drink a toast to the departed at their grave, and then leave the bottle or glass on the grave. And given the Georgian propensity for drinking toasts, the cemetery could become quite cluttered with all this. I think wine was preferred, though vodka was certainly acceptable, and even just water, apparently. Beer, however, was never used for toasts, for the living or dead.

John said...

Thanks, Mimi. It is times like that with your grandmother where we are forced to come to grips with our own humanity. Some people spend their lives fleeing such encounters, and by so doing never really grow up.

Ranger said...

My grandfather was never very religious. He never attended church, unless it was on TV. When he was rasing his 14 kids, including my mother, he would often go to a "prayer meeting" or "bible study", most of them knew this was code for poker night, or bowling.
Yet, immediately before he passed, he asked to be raised up in his hospital bed, and said these words : " I go to sing the praises and ride the chariots ".
Death has always been apart of my life. My oldest brother died in a car wreck when he was 19, I was 1. I married the niece of two of the people who were with him, that fateful weekend. Also, now that I own my own business, one of my customers was in the car w/ him. though I was so young, I have always known him, and will always be with him.
Memory Eternal

James the Thickheaded said...


Thank you for this post... and for linking to Rod's as well. As many funerals as I've been to - and I've done a lot and stood-in for others when they couldn't go - as a relative newby Orthodox... I've yet to attend an Orthodox funeral. I'm sure that day will come soon enough that I don't have to wish it on anyone.

The Schmemann quote seems to hit it rather well... how prayer for the dead has been turned into a "This Is (Was) Your Life" celebration that would seem to accentuate the urgency to deny the inevitable among the survivors. Yet as you suggest... even those led down this garden path exhibit often in their last moments... resistance to the Leviathan... and at last open the door and walk through.

There is much one could ponder in this. But mostly... what comes to mind are the losses we bear through our pride and our inability or unwillingness to reach each other earlier. I guess some waters are just harder to cross... we try to find the words and cannot... until we give up the waltz and shoot straight. I say this as someone still struggling with these things with his own aging parents... where so much of what you write hits the mark... and of course doesn't, too, but with probably the same range of differences. Lord knows we try... and there are glimmers of light... but they don't make it easy. Lord help us, and have mercy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you John: other commentators above have said it better than I could.

Like James I thank you for the Schmemann quote: he has a way of cutting right to the heart of matters, and I recall reading a similar quote several months previous and being struck, and challenged, by it.

Milton T. Burton said...

Excellent post. I always am amused that to recall for all Buckley Senior's East Coast aristicratic pretentions, his wealth came from his father's alliance with Jim Wells and the Cameron County Blue Coub in South Texas, which was one of the most corrupt and exploitative political machines in American History.

Milton T. Burton said...

Your mother reminds me of my maternal grandmother, who divided humanity into two groups: her family and a small handful of close friends, and all the rest of mankind, who were to be considered potential enimies until proven otherwise. And the proving was up to them. These are fierce people, people completely out of place in this "weak and piping time or peace."

John said...

Ranger, your grandfather's last words are the best example yet.

JtT, you hit it exactly--for all of us--it all comes down to our pride, and sooner of later, we all have to lay it down.

Milton, you are correct about the Buckley heritage. I think the grandfather was sheriff of Duval County. (I recall an interview from years ago, in which Buckley acknowledged this connection, and then tied it, in a humorous way, with LBJ's stolen election in 1948 involving the Duval County precinct.) A family with a keen eye for the main chance, the clan moved South and Buckley's father solidified the family fortune in Mexico in the 20s, I believe. I think he came out of there with a pile a cash, a wife with some claim to New Orleans social pretensions, and then set themselves up on the East Coast. There's nothing wrong with any of that, but it is hardly the old money one would infer from the image he projected.

And Milton, your grandmother's approach was exactly that of my mother's. What is the source of your quote? It is a good one.

Milton T. Burton said...

My quote is from Shakespeare's Richard III. Richard's opening speech. Richard was a lame hunchback. Here is the exact quote: "Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity."

Here is the whole speech.
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew'd up,
About a prophecy, which says that 'G'
Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.

Milton T. Burton said...

Actually, it was Box 13 in Jim Wells County where the 212 votes that gave LBJ the 87 vote lead came from. A guy named Ed Lloyd was the political boss of Jim Wells County and a close ally of Geroge B. Parr, the Duke of Duvall. Parr was the boss of all South Texas. The most interesting of the Parr allies was Judge Manuel Ramon of Webb County (Laredo) about whom it was joked that he was so spectral and elusinve that not even his own wife recognized his voice. The Parrs took over in 1912 by siding with the Mexicans over the Anglos after an election day massacre in which several people were killed.

Here is an accurate description of Parr and the way he lived from one of my manuscripts:

"The man who'd just come through the door of the Windmill Café stood five feet, eight inches tall. He had a sturdy, compact body and wore a well-cut double-breasted suit of blue wool, a fine white cotton dress shirt and a silk tie of mottled reds and golds. His thinning brown hair had been carefully combed straight back from a broad forehead that loomed above a pair of mischievous brown eyes behind rimless glasses. To all the world he looked like a prosperous small town banker. But this man was no banker; he was El Patrón--George Berham Parr, the Duke of Duval, the Boss of Bosses in South Texas politics.

"As always, he was guarded by a trio of deputy sheriffs. All three were Mexican-American men in their mid-thirties, and all three were dressed in cheap gabardine suits, scuffed boots, and ratty Stetsons. Two of them were tall, and thin to the point of emaciation. They wore Colt pistols slung low on bullet-filled belts, while the third, a short, stolid individual with a jailhouse swagger, carried a sawed-off pump shotgun and stared out at the world with the dead-fish eyes of a back-alley abortionist.

"They were three of a hundred or more similarly armed and hard-bitten border men he could call on in times of need. Now forty-two years old and nearing the peak of his career, Parr was preeminent in a group of ruthless political bosses that included--besides my own aunt--such individuals as Ed Lloyd, the virtual dictator of Jim Wells County, the Guerra family of Starr and Hidalgo Counties, and Judge Manuel Ramon of Laredo, a figure so spectral and illusive that it was joked that not even his own wife recognized his voice. Through these interlocking alliances, he controlled an enormous bloc of votes--a bloc large enough to make his support the deciding factor in any closely-contested statewide election. Consequently, all the state's major politicians, even silver-haired patrician senators from the old cotton counties, eventually found themselves waiting hat-in-hand in the anteroom of his fortress-like office a block from the decaying courthouse in San Diego."

Milton T. Burton said...

Note: Buckley profited in Mexico through his political contacts in South Texas and the influence Texas political figures had on national affairs in those days. In short, he was a crony capitalist of the Cheneyite stripe. Of course, in those days Mexico was a sort of unofficial American colony, anyway. Or as two-time Medal of Honor General Smedley Butler said in his "War Is A Racket,"

"I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. 1 helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested."