After attending a funeral last week for a friend my age, my mind turned to thoughts and processing of death and what that means. Death is a prevalent part of life. But as many have observed before, our society does little to prepare us to deal with it ahead of time. Many current resources can help us when life catapults us into the sudden face of dying and death, but most of us just don’t go there until we have to—at least we adults who are mostly in control of our behavior and faculties.
When I was a kid my sisters and friends and I spent one summer playing funeral all the time. You could call it our “funeral phase.” We had a giant box—a huge florist container or storage bin that had a lid—and we could fit inside lying out flat on our backs. We also had beautiful ball gowns from the fifties that my mom had acquired from a connection in the wardrobe department from her college days. The formals had velvet and beaded tops with full tulle skirts, which weren’t truly floor-length gowns, but on us, they made it to the ground easily. We also had artificial flowers, which of course never wilted, so we could play this game over and over for a whole summer. Which we did.
I imagine we were working through some exposure to death in the ways only children do. My dad’s best friend’s parents were killed in a car crash off the side of a mountain highway. If there wasn’t a terrible snow storm, I imagined one into the scenario, which forever popped back into my head if ever driving through the mountains, even now. A vivid picture of the ceremony lingers in my mind, conjured from sitting wide-eyed in a pew and staring at those double closed caskets presiding at the front of the church that day at the funeral service. In the ways that children pick up little snippets here and there of adults’ speculative comments and conversations, I gleaned the things that haunt kids at night about those two closed boxes. Around the same season of life, one day the phone rang and I answered. The voice asked me to relay a message to my parents that the daughter of their college friends, a girl my age, had died of a brain tumor. It was a phone experience seared into my psyche, to be entrusted with such weighty information. I listened so hard, trying to memorize what the man said, knowing it was really important to get it all right.
And so, what we didn’t understand or couldn’t comprehend, we practiced. We played funeral out in our backyard. We dressed up in those beautiful colorful gowns, arranged and carried the plastic flowers in a procession like a wedding, humming Greensleeves—over and over and over. It was the prefect funeral piece, evocative, melodious, and haunting. We had to take turns being the dead person in the box, because that was really the prized role, even in the summer heat. After getting in, carefully tucking in and arranging our gowns and crossing our arms just so over our chests, the others would drop the lid into place and the “dead” person would lie there in the dark heat for as long as possible while listening to the muffled humming from the other participants of Greensleeves--over and over and over.
The pastor at the funeral service last week read a beautiful poem. On the internet it is attributed to many different authors under different titles, including The Sailing Ship and Gone From My Sight. No matter who wrote it, I love its sentiment. A ship is sailing away, disappearing into the horizon and the observers watching from shore express after she shrinks and disappears from sight that “she is gone.” But then someone says to consider a different perspective. Those on the opposite shore will see her coming and shout out in gladness because to them, “here she comes.” I love that hope. The faith in continued life after dying is so hopeful and comforting. I wish when we were kids we could have moved from playing funeral to playing “life after death.” Wouldn’t that have been fun? Instead of lying still in a dark, hot box we could have acted out supernatural things like teleporting or flying. Though, considering more than once I announced I could fly then leapt from a hay loft or bunk bed onto the hard ground, maybe it really was better that my best aspiration was to lie still in a box on the ground in the backyard. Less broken bones that way.
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