Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Funeral Director's Life

Not long ago on NPR, I heard a piece about a funeral director who’s a poet and essayist. He says poets and morticians are both engaged in essentially the same work: asking questions about the unknowable. He says both groups prefer dark clothing, complain about the public misunderstanding of their work, and rue the long hours and low pay. He read some of his work. It seemed very good to me, filled with astute observations about the ephemeral nature of human life; about how we’re all connected by the one thing we understand the least.

I thought about other funeral directors I’ve known. And I began to realize that all of them I could recall were people brimming, in some fashion or other, with life. There was Andy Womack, who ran a mortuary in my hometown in Missouri. He was always laughing and telling jokes. He was a deacon in the church. His son had a kidney disease, I remember; it made the poor kid smell bad, sometimes. We made fun of him at church camp until our counselor made us stop.

Then there’s Jack North—or “Cactus Jack,” as he’s known when he puts on his cowboy gear for civic clubs and school kids and narrates old photographs of the town, taken near the turn of the twentieth century. When he was young, before he took over the funeral home from his father, he used to play tenor sax in local dance bands.
This violates the popular stereotypes, I realize. Think of old Westerns. The town undertaker is usually portrayed as a dour, cadaverous figure in black who seems just the slightest bit pleased when there’s a hanging or a shootout. Trouble is, I can’t recall meeting any real-life undertakers who actually fit this image.

Maybe there is something about being with families through the final rituals for a loved one that causes undertakers to prize life a little more than the rest of us. Maybe the mortician’s art—administering the final ablutions to the dead, affording them the final dignities our society requires—imparts some discipline, some essential way of seeing that the rest of us adopt only after a more conscious process.

One thing I know: undertakers—at least, the good ones, I think—are not callous toward death. When my mother died, the man from the local funeral home (I can’t remember his name) wept when he came to our house to pick up her body. Like many in the community, he had witnessed her life first-hand. He now witnessed her death in the same way, and the sadness of such a loss made the same connections in him it made in others. I was grateful for his tears; they made a little more sense of mine, somehow.

Is there something about the undertaker’s profession that forces or encourages these folks to engage so directly with life? As I pondered this, I got to thinking about two words, similar in sound but, as far as I can tell, completely unrelated in any etymological sense. The two words are “humor” and “humus.” The first connotes amusement and fun; the second has to do with earth and soil. Is that merely an accident of language, or is there some essential connection? There seems to be—at least, as these words impinge upon the undertakers I have known.

The same connection is made in the venerable old graduation hymn, “Gaudeamus Igutur.” The main gist of the hymn, very loosely translated, would be, “Let us now rejoice in our youth, for one day we shall be dust.” Rejoicing and death—dancing and dust. Two essential elements of the human condition—as far as I can tell, the lower animals don’t think much about either one. But undertakers think about them every day, I’d imagine. They hear the sad, funny, bittersweet reminiscences of the mourning families, and they officiate as the mortal husk of the departed is reunited with the earth. Funeral directors must glide along the tightrope strung between the opposite poles of mortality. I guess that means they have to develop a good sense of balance.

In many works of Renaissance art you can observe a feature called a memento mori: literally, a reminder of death. In portraits commissioned by the wealthy, for example, the artist often places a skull somewhere off to the side. Every time an Italian noble or a well-heeled merchant of Amsterdam would look at his likeness hanging above the mantle, he would also be able to receive a prompt from the conclusion of the script, the final scene that awaits us all. The juxtaposition of the two elements—the honor accorded to wealth and station, and the utter leveling brought by death—must have surely provoked at least a few ironic smiles. Speaking of the end of the script reminds me that I once heard this line in a play: “Funny thing, death…” It also calls to mind the final words supposedly spoken by a renowned Shakespearian actor: “Dying is easy… comedy is hard.”

Maybe we should all get to know more funeral directors. Maybe by doing that, we could get in on the joke. Maybe we’d remember that to be human is not only to err… it is to laugh.