The etymology is perilous: pulpit from pulpitum, meaning scaffold, by which we come, at length, to catafalque— those f’s and a’s, like tongue and groove boards, like rope enough to hang, or hoist, or let a corpse down to its permanent repose. One platform’s raised; one frames a coffin’s rest. So, first the elocution, then the wake? Like lamentations or the case of Job— that vexing, god-awful, comfortless book. And yet we rise to the occasion, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. A bit of scripture, a psalm or poem, something that happened in the week just past; we try to weave them all together as if to say a loving God’s in charge. As if we were certain of a loving God. We see by faith. We live in hope. We love. Or play the odds, as Pascal did. We fall. Sometimes it all seems quite impossible. And yet we rise again and walk the plank, and sing into oblivion good news: Unto God the glory, all praise, all thanks! while nodding congregants loll in their pews.
Imagine Tom out on the fire escape, between the world at large and inner life, edging the proscenium, downstage right. whilst curios and characters and shades
unveil themselves as dancing beauties do. I have tricks in my pocket, things up my sleeve! Upstage, sheer curtains rise, transparencies: Truth in the pleasant guise of illusion.
Like John on Patmos, John the Harbinger— voices crying out of the wilderness— Make straight ye the Lord’s way! quoth Isaiah. Eschatology and Apocalypse:
Think Esmeralda in the cathedral, Jim Hawkins in the rigging, chased by Hands or Ishmael, just flotsam at the end, alone, before God and all these people.
Or Montaigne in his tower library: “the whole of Man’s estate in every man.” Or Yeats pacing the boards at Ballylee: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
Thus, exegetes and preachers on their own hold forth, against a never-ceasing din of second-guessing, out there on their limbs: Have faith! Behold, the mystery! Behold!
That fresco of the Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico (dear brother John) shows Jesus semi-circled by his men, gilt-haloed Galileans, but for one, who will betray him later with a kiss. Atop their sandstone tuffets, rapt, engaged, he’s going on about beatitudes, fulfillments of the law, the words to pray. Outside the frame, unseen, a multitude leans in to listen to the hermeneutics, which are not without some challenges, to wit: though we be smitten, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, love our enemies; while we’re forgiven only so much as we forgive those who trespass against us. A certain eye-for-eyeness to that scheme, a tooth-for-toothedness. A quid pro quo? As if, to finally get, we must let go? Sometimes it’s so, sometimes it isn’t? So, what shall we say to these things? Who’s to know? Say who abides in love abides in God. Say God is love. Love God. Love one another. Say grace is undeserved and plentiful. Say if we’re saved, it’s mostly from ourselves.
I was raised by Irish Catholics. Even as I write that it sounds a
little like "wolves" or some especially feral class of creature. I don't
mean this in the nativist sense of brutish hordes, but in the sense of
sure faith and fierce family loyalties, the pack dynamics of their
clannishness, their vigilance and pride.
"When I’m gone just cremate me,” Hughey MacSwiggan told his third and final wife as she stood at his bedside while the hospice nurse fiddled with the morphine drip that hadn’t kept his pain at bay. The operative word in his directive was just. He wasn’t especially fond of fire. He hadn’t picked out a favorite urn. He saw burning not so much as an alternative to burial as an alternative to bother. He just wanted it all to be over.
When I was a child I spoke as a child, understood as a child, reasoned as a child. I knew my parents loved me best. I mistook abundant love for especial favor and blessings for entitlements. I mistook good fortune for God’s approval and worldly outcomes for the will of God. Kennedy won because God was on our side. When my grandfather died, I assumed it was me—something I’d done or failed to do. Maybe the first time I ate meat on a Friday, at Bobby Bacon’s house. It was baloney.
Like David Fisher in the award-winning HBO series Six Feet Under, when my father died, I embalmed him. My brother Pat assisted. We dressed him, put him in a box and soon thereafter buried him. Tim did the obits and drove the hearse. Eddie called the priest and did the printing. Mary handled the florals and finances. Julie organized the luncheon that would follow.
The photo of the new priest among his people is an old one. “First Solemn High Mass,” it reads in white handprint in the top right corner, “of Rev. Thomas P. Lynch,” and on the next line, “St. John’s Church, Jackson, Mich., June 10, 1934.” It is a panoramic, 17”x 7” black-and-white glossy.
It’s sunny and 70 at Chapel Hill. I’m speaking to Project Compassion, an advocacy group for end-of-life issues, on an unlikely trinity of oxymorons—the good death, good grief and the good funeral. “What,” most people reasonably ask, “can ever be good about death or grief or funerals?” The 150 people in this room understand.
After 30 years of directing funerals, I’ve come to believe in open caskets. A service to which everybody but the deceased is invited, like a wedding without the bride or a baptism without the baby, denies the essential reality of the occasion, misses the focal point. It is why we comb wreckage, drag rivers and bring our war dead home.
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