Sometime past noon. November ninth the last, our
telephone rang. It was for me, personto person. My oldest
sister, Margaret, was calling. "Joe, Papa just died!"
We children never called him Papa while we were growing
up. He was mostly "Dad." But in the last decade or so,
out of a strange mellowing affection, we started, all seven of
us, referring to our father as Papa.
My Papa dead!-just seven days before he was 92. Within
the hour I began my journey to my father. I find it difficult
to express how deeply I wanted to be with him in his death. Furthermore
he had long since commissioned my brother and me to conduct the
celebration. My brother, unfortunately, was out of the country
and I had quiet anxiety about executing it alone.
The late afternoon flight was conducive to contemplation.
I thought of the many wellmeant condolences had already
"Isn't it fine that your father lived to be
"It must be easier for you since he lived such
a long life."
Certainly I was grateful for such comments. But I
found myself perturbed too. Didn't they realize that to die is
to die, whether you are seventeen, fortynine, or one? Or
one hundred and ten? Didn't they know that our death is our death'?
And that each of us has only one death to die? This was my father's
death! It was no less significant because he was most of a hundred.
It was his death. The only one he would ever have.
The family had already gathered when I arrived in
the little New England town. We immediately sat in council. The
first task was to clarify our selfunderstanding. The second
was to embody that understanding in the celebration of Papa's
death. Consensus was already present: the One who gives us our
life is the same that takes it from us. From this stance we felt
certain broad implications should guide the formation of the ceremony.
Death is a very lively part of a man's lie and
no life is finished without the experience of death.
Death is a crucial point in the human adventure
which somehow transposes to every other aspect of life.
Death is to be received in humble gratitude and
must ever be honored with honest dignity.
Together we concluded that the death of our father
must be celebrated as a real part of his history, before the final
Author that gave him both his life and his death, with integrity
and solemn appreciation.
The very articulation of these lines of guidance
worked backward laying bare our own inward flight from death.
They also made more obvious the efforts of our culture to disguise
death. I mean the great concealment by means of plush caskets,
white satin linings, soft cushions, head pillows, Sunday clothes,
cosmetics, perfume, flowers, and guaranteed vaults. Empty of symbolic
meaning, they serve but to deceive-to simulate life. They seem
to say, "Nothing has actually happened. Nothing is really
changed". What vanity to denude death! All our pretenses
about it only strengthen its power to destroy our lives. Death
stripped of meaning and dignity becomes a demon. Not to embrace
death as part of our given life is finally not to embrace our
life. That is, we do not really live. This is the power of unacknowledged
death. I ponder over the strange smile on faces of the dead.
To symbolize the dignity of our father's death, the
family thought to clothe him in a pine box and to rest him in
the raw earth.
I remembered the men of the war I buried. There was great dignity in the shelter-half shrouded, in the soiled clothing, in the dirty face, in the shallow grave. I say dignity was there. Death was recognized as death. Death was dramatized as the death of the men who had died their own death.
A sister and brother-in-law were sent to make arrangements.
They asked about the coffin. A pine box was out of the question.
None was to be had. The undertaker, as they called him, explained
that caskets ranged from one hundred to several thousands of dollars.
Interpreting the spirit of the common mind, our emissaries
asked for the $100 coffin.
"What $100 coffin?" Asked an astonished
"Why, the one you mentioned."
"Oh, no, caskets begin at $275."
"Did you not mention a $100 coffin?"
"Yes. Yes. But you wouldn't want that. It is
for paupers. We bury only the paupers in the $100 coffins."
This thought racked the psychic foundations of my
sister and her husband. They retreated for further consultation.
None of the rest of us, it turned out, were emotionally prepared
for the pauper twist. Actually, the tyranny of the economic order
over us was exposed. Our deepest emotions of guilt, love, sorrow,
regret, were all mixed up with this strange tyranny. In short,
we could not move forward with our decision until we first agreed
to set up a small memorial for Papa that would be used for charity
in the little community.
By this time, assuming that no one would want to
put his father away as a pauper, the undertaker had placed Papa
in the $275 casket. Having recovered some equilibrium we protested.
He was understandably upset by our stand and insisted that we
come to his showroom. We all went together, including Mama, who
has been weathering the storms of life now for more than fourscore
years. Caskets of all kinds filled the place. We asked about the
"We keep that outside in the storehouse."
Anticipating our next request he hurried on. "No, I can't
bring that into my showroom."
In the back I saw a wooden rough box which reminded
me of the pine coffin. We talked, the undertaker and 1. He was
really a very sensitive man. Certainly he had a living to make.
When I offered to pay him more for the other expenses of the funeral;
he refused. But he mellowed a bit. He remembered when he lived
in upper New York state as a little boy, his grandfather had been
an undertaker too. Grandfather had used rough pine boxes out in
the country to bury people in. In his recollecting he found a
kind of meaning in our decision for the pauper's coffin. He even
brought it into the showroom where Mama and the rest of the family
could see it.
Immediately it was opened and another mild shock
came. The pauper's coffin was exactly like any other coffin-pillow,
white satin, and all. Except the white satin wasn't really white
satin. It was the kind of shiny material you might buy at the
ten cent store. Everything was simply a cheap imitation. We had
hoped for something honest. Despite the disappointment, we took
the pauper's box. And Papa was transferred to his own coffin.
I did not want to see my father until I could have
some time with him alone. Several hours before the funeral I went
to where he waited. I can scarcely describe what I saw and felt.
My father, I say, was ninetytwo. In his latter
years he had wonderfully chiseled wrinkles. I had helped to put
them there. His cheeks were deeply sunken; his lips pale. He was
an old man. There is a kind of glory in the face of an old man.
Not so with the stranger laying there. They had my Papa looking
like he was fiftytwo. Cotton stuffed in his cheeks had erased
the best wrinkles. Makeup powder and rouge plastered his
face way up into his hair and around his neck and ears. His lips
were painted. He . . . he looked ready to step before the footlights
of the matinee performance.
I fiercely wanted to pluck out the cotton but was
afraid. At least the makeup could come off. I called for
alcohol and linens. A very reluctant mortician brought them to
me. And I began the restoration. As the powder, the rouge, the
lipstick disappeared, the stranger grew older. He never recovered
the look of his ninetytwo years but in the end the man in
the coffin became my Papa.
Something else happened to me there with my father
in his death. Throughout childhood, I had been instructed in the
medieval world view. This by many people who were greatly concerned
for me. My father, my mother, my Sunday school teacher, yes, my
teachers at the school and most of my neighbors. They taught me
the ancient Greek picture of how when you die there is something
down inside of you that escapes death, how the real me doesn't
die at all. Much later I came to see that both the biblical view
and the modern image were something quite different. But I wondered
if the meeting with my father in his death would create nostalgia
for the world view of my youth. I wondered if I would be tempted
to revert to that earlier conditioning in order to handle the
problems of my own existence. It wasn't this way.
What did happen to me I am deeply grateful for. I
don't know how much I'm able to communicate. It happened when
I reached down to straighten my father's tie. There was my father.
Not the remains. Not the body of my father, but my father. It
was my father in death! Ever since I can remember, Papa never
succeeded in getting his tie quite straight. We children took
some kind of pleasure in fixing it before he went out. Though
he always pretended to be irritated at this, we knew that he enjoyed
our attention. It was all sort of a secret sign of mutual acknowledgment.
Now in death I did it once again. This simple little act became
a new catalyst of meaning. That was my Papa whose tie I straightened
in the coffin. It was my father there experiencing his death.
It was my Papa involved in the Mystery in his death as he had
been involved in the Mystery in his life. I say there he was related
to the same Final Mystery in death as in life. Somehow the dichotomy
between living and dying was overcome.
Where is thy victory, O death?
Death is indeed a powerfully individual happening.
My Papa experienced his death all alone. About this I am quite
clear. I remember during the war I wanted to help men die. I was
never finally able to do this. I tried. Sometimes I placed a lighted
cigarette in a soldier's mouth as we talked. Sometimes I quoted
for him the Twentythird Psalm. Sometimes I wiped the sweat and
blood from his face. Sometimes I held his hand. Sometimes I did
nothing. It was a rude shock to discover that I could not in the
final sense help a man to die. Each had to do his own dying, alone.
But then I say, death is something more than an individual
experience. It is also a social happening. Papa's death was an
event in our family. All of us knew that a happening had happened
to us as a family and not just to Papa. Furthermore, the dying
of an individual is also an internal occurrence in the larger
communities of life. Indeed it happens to all history and creation
itself. This is true whether that individual be great or small.
The inner being of a small New England town is somehow changed
by the absence of the daily trek of an eccentric old gentleman
to the post office where he stopped to deliver long monologues
on not very interesting subjects to all who could not avoid him.
Perhaps we don't know how to feel these happenings as communities.
Maybe we don't know how to celebrate them. But they happen.
We wanted to celebrate Papa's death as his own event
but we wanted also to celebrate it as a social happening. Most
of all, we wanted to celebrate Christianly. But this is not so
simple. The office of the funeral suffers a great malaise in our
day. Perhaps even more than other rites. There are many causes.
The undertaker, in the showroom episode, spoke to this with deep
concern. His rather scathing words disturb me still.
"Funerals today have become no more than disposal
"What of those conducted by the Church?"
"Church indeed! I mean the Church", he
His professional posture was here set aside. Pointing
out that most funerals today are held outside any real sense of
Christian community. he spoke of the tragedy of keeping children
away from death. He spoke of adults who sophisticatedly boast
of never having engaged in the death rite. He spoke of the overall
decrease in funeral attendance. He especially rued the emptiness
of the rites because they were no longer understood. And he caricatured
the clergy as the hired disposal units with their artificial airs,
unrealistic words, and hurried services.
"What we all seem to want nowadays." he
said. "is to get rid of the body as quickly and efficiently
as is respectably allowable, with as little trouble to as few
folk as possible.
These solemn words were creatively sobering. The
funeral embodied the full office of worship. We who gathered acted
out all three parts. We first confessed our own selfillusions
and received once again the word of cosmic promise of fresh beginnings.
Then we read to ourselves from our classic scriptures recounting
men's courage to be before God and boldly expressed together our
thanksgiving for the given actualities of our lives. Thirdly,
we presented ourselves to the Unchanging Mystery beyond all this
is and corporately dedicated our lives once more to the task of
affirming the world and creating civilization.
The point is, we did not gather to console ourselves.
We did not gather to psychologically bolster one another. We did
not gather to excuse anybody's existence or to pretend about the
world we live in. We celebrated the death of my father by acknowledging
who we are and what we must therefore become. That is, we assembled
as the Church on his occasion in our history, to remember that
we are the Church.
In the midst of the service of death the "words
over the dead" are pronounced. I had sensed for a long time
that one day I might pronounce them over Papa. Now that the time
had come I found myself melancholy beyond due. It was not simply
that it was my father. I was perhaps acutely sensitive. I mean
about the funeral meditation, as it is revealingly termed. Memories
of poetic rationalizations of our human pretenses about death
gnawed at my spirit. Some that I recalled actually seemed designed
to blanket the awareness that comes in the face of death, that
death is a part of life and that all must die. I remembered others
as attempts to explain away the sharp sense of ontological guilt
and moral emptiness that we all experience before the dead. The
very gifts of grace were here denied, whether by ignorance or
intent, and the human spirit thereby smothered into nothing. I
remembered still other of these meditations, even more grotesque
in their disfigurement of life: undisguised sentimentalities offering
shallow assurance and fanciful comforts. How could we shepherds
of the souls of men do such things to human beings? Perhaps after
all, I was not unduly depressed.
Coincidental with these broodings, my imagination
was vividly assaulted hy another image. It was a homely scene
from a television western. A small crowd of townsfolk were assembled
on Boot Hill to pay last respects to one who had lived and died
outside the law. A very ordinary citizen was asked to say "a-few-words-over-the-dead."
He spoke with the plainness of wisdom born out of intimate living
with life as it actually is. Protesting that he was not a religious
man, he reminded the gathered of the mystery present in that situation
beyond the understanding of any one or all of them together. Then
he turned and spoke words to the dead one. He spoke words to the
family. He spoke words to the townsfolk themselves. In each case
his words confronted the intended hearer with the real events
and guilt of the past and in each case he offered an image of
significance for the future. There was comfort in his words. But
it was the honest, painful comfort of coming to terms with who
we are in the midst of the world as it is. It impressed me as
deeply religious. as deeply Christian. For my father, I took this
pattern as my own.
At the appointed place 1, too, reminded the assembled
body of the Incomprehensible One who is the ground of all living
and dying. I. too. announced a word to the assembled townsfolk
and to my family and to my father.
I looked out at the members of the funeral party
who represented the village where my father had spent his last
years. They were sitting face to face before one another, each
caught in the gaze of his neighbor. In that moment. If I had never
known it before, I knew that a community's life is somehow held
before it whenever it takes, with even vague seriousness, the
death of one it its members. I saw in its face, its failure and
fears, its acts of injustice, callousness, and irresponsibility.
I saw its guilt. I saw its despair. They could call it sorrow
for a passing one. But it was their sorrow. Indeed it was, in
a strange way, sorrow for themselves.
In the name of the Church, I spoke, first of all
this which they already knew, yet so desperately need to know
aloud. And then I pronounced all their past, remembered and forgotten,
fully and finally received before the Unconditioned Being who
is Lord both of life and death.
I looked out at my family. There was my mother surrounded
by her children and her children's children. What was going on
in the deeps of this woman who had mixed her destiny with that
of the dead man for the major share of a century? What of sister
Margaret who knew so well the severity of her father? What of
the son who had never won approval? Or the soninlaw
never quite received? What of the one who knew hidden things?
What of the rebellious one? What of the specially favored? What
of Alice? What of Arthur? What of Elizabeth? I knew, as I looked,
perhaps all over again, that the sorrow at death is not only that
of the loss of the cherished and the familiar. It is the sorrow
un unacknowledged guilt, postponed intentions, buried animosities,
unmended ruptures. The sorrow of the funeral is the pain of our
own creatureliness of selfdisclosure. and of selfacknowledgment.
It is the pain of turning from the past to the future. It is the
pain of having to decide all over again about our lives.
In the name of the Church. I spoke of these things
written so clearly upon our family countenance. And then in fear
and joy I pronounced all our relations with Papa and one another
as cosmically approved by the One who gives us our lives and takes
them from us once again.
I looked at my father. And I knew things in a way
I had not known them before. It wasn't that I knew anything new.
But my knowing was now transposed so that everything was different.
I knew his very tragic boyhood. I knew the scars it engraved on
his soul. I knew his lifelong agonizing struggle to rise beyond
them. I knew his unknown greatness. I knew his qualities next
to genius that never found deliverance. I knew his secret sense
of failure. I knew things he never knew I knew. I knew the dark
nights of his soul. I knew well, what I knew was his life. His
spirit journey. That was it. It was his life I knew in that moment.
It was frozen now. It was all in now. It was complete. It was
finished. It was offered up for what it was. This was the difference
made by death.
In the name of the Church. I spoke his life out loud.
Not excusing, not glorifying most of his life as I saw it then.
And then I pronounced it good and great and utterly significant
before the One who had given it to history just as it was. Not
as it might have been, not as it could have been abstractly considered,
not as I might have wanted it to be or others felt it should have
been, not even as Papa might have wanted it altered. I sealed
it as acceptable to God, then, just as it was finished.
The celebration ended in the burial grounds.
The funeral party bore Papa to his grave. There was
no drama in the processional. It was just empty utility. The death
march, once explosive in symbolic force, had lost its power. I
allowed myself to be swept along in silent frustration. I was
sad for Papa. I had pity for those of us who bore him. I grew
angry with myself.
The sun had already fallen behind the ridge when
we came to the burial ground. It was on a remote New England hillside
(they call it a mountain there). I remember clearly the sharp,
cold air and how the very chill made me feel keenly alive. I remember
also how the dark shadows dancing on the hills reminded me of
life. But I remember most of all the clean smell of God's good
earth freshly turned.
I say I smelled the fresh earth. There was none to
be seen. What I did see is difficult to believe. I mean the green
stuff. Someone had come before us and covered that good, wonderful
raw dirt, every clod of it, with green stuff. Everything, every
scar of the grave, was concealed under simulated grass: just as
if nothing had been disturbed here: Just as if nothing were going
on here: Just as if nothing at all were happening. What an offense
against nature. against history. against Papa. against us. against
I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry out to the whole
world, "Something IS going on here, something great, something
significantly human. LOOK! Everybody, look! Here is my father's
death. It is going on here!"
The banks of flowers upon the green facade only added
to the deception. Was it all contrived to pretend at this last
moment that my father was not really dead after all? Was it not
insisting that death is not important, not a lively part of our
lives, not thoroughly human, not bestowed by the Final One'' Suddenly
the great lie took on cosmic proportion. And suddenly I was physically
This time I didn't want to scream. I experienced
an acute urge to vomit.
A sister sensitively perceived all this and understood.
She pushed to my side and gave me courage. Together we laid aside
the banks of flowers. Together we rolled back the carpet of deceit.
God's good, wonderful clean earth lay once again unashamedly naked.
I drank it into my being. The nausea passed.
Mind you, I'm not blaming anybody. Not anybody really,
save myself. I just hadn't anticipated everything. I have no excuse
but I was taken by surprise, you understand. And I so passionately
wanted to celebrate Papa's death with honesty and integrity and
dignity-for his sake, for our sake, for God's sake.
We lowered Papa then in his pauper's box deep into the raw ground. Then began the final rites. There were three.
I lifted up the Bible, It was a sign. We were commemorating
Papa's journey in the historical community of the faithful. However
distantly, however feebly. However brokenly, he had walked with
the knights of faith. Abraham, Amos, Paul, Augustine, Thomas,
Luther, Wesley, Jesus. By fate and by choice these were his first
companions of the road. I recalled aloud from their constitution
which I held in my hands. The heroic formula from Job is what
I meant to recite: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and
naked shall I return: the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
blessed be the name of the Lord." What came from my lips
were the words of Paul. "If I live, I live unto the Lord;
if I die, I die unto the Lord: so whether 1 live or whether I
die, I am the Lord's."
I lifted up a very old, musty, leather bound volume of poetry. This, too, was a sign. We were ritualizing Papa's own unique and unrepeatable engagement in the human adventure. Papa was an individual. a solitary individual before God. It was most fitting that a last rite should honor this individuality. Such was the role of the volume of hymnpoems. From it Papa had read and quoted and sung in monotone for as long as any of us, including Mama. could recall. The words I joined to the sign were from this collection. The author was a friend of Papa's.
God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform:
He plants his footsteps on the sea and rides upon the storm:
Blind unbelief is sure to err. and scan His works in vain:
God is His own interpreter and He shall make it plain.
The third sign celebrated the fact that Papa was
a participant in the total wonder of creation and that his life
and death were good because creation is good. What I mean is that
Papa was God's friend. My last act was to place him gladly and
gratefully on behalf of all good men everywhere in the hands of
the One in whose hands he already was, that Mysterious Power who
rules the unknown realm of death to do with him as he well pleaseth.
I ask to know no more. This I symbolized. Three times I stooped
low, three times I plunged my hands deep into the loose earth
beside the open pit, and three times I threw that good earth upon
my Papa within his grave. And all the while I sang forth the majestic
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
And some of those present there for the sake of all
history and all creation said, "Amen".