When I was a little girl my mother informed me, early and often, that “children should be seen, and not heard.”
An obedient sort, I soon learned that if I would only keep my piehole closed, I was quite welcome to hover at the periphery of adult gatherings, until well past bedtime. There, I would quietly drink in the stories that would bubble up and out of various aunties and uncles whose guards were let down and tongues loosened—for better or worse—thanks to a steady imbibing of what they called “the creature” in all its shades.
These relatives were never glad of a present moment, but once it had slipped into the ether of memory, they were happy to indulge in the sloppiest of sentiments about the glory of days gone by. In particular, they loved retelling the stories that reinforced their understanding of themselves as Irish Stereotypes in Good Standing—the “donnybrooks,” between families, the “fisticuffs” between siblings of either sex, the “shenanigans” they suspected were going on everywhere and at all times.
Since Irish wakes usually served up the donnybrooks, fisticuffs, and shenanigans along with healthy helpings of superstition and drunken excess, the most often retold (and most often exaggerated) stories—the ones that brought table-slapping guffaws and wheezes from all sides—were tales of the in-house wakings of their beloved dead. Most infamous among these was the circa 1930 wake of one “Uncle Charlie” a child-beating brute who died of a stomach cancer but not before being written up in a medical journal, for—my mother claimed—“being the curious case of a man burning out his gut from his own acid hate.”
My mother, who often bore the brunt of his wrath, was six or seven years old at Charlie's passing, and she recounted approaching his laid-out body with great care, just in case he still had a slap left in him. The rest of the family had moved from the parlor (“we called them parlors, then”) to the kitchen to take either liquid or solid suppers. “There was a cube of ice, somewhere in that box, but I don’t know that,” she said, “and as the thing melted, Charlie shifted in the box. I screamed 'he’s alive, he’s alive!' and tore into the kitchen, and Uncle Joe brought me back out along with a plate of beef and carrots and potatoes and laid it on Uncle Charlie’s chest; ‘shush, ye child, he just wants to be included.’”
Hearing these stories in an age when death had been moved out of the parlor and into the funeral home, it was both spooky and exotic to consider that once upon a time people took care of their own dead; they washed the bodies and made them presentable, and then invited the neighbors in to toast him farewell, “everyone came,” my mother said. “See, they wanted to make sure he was dead, but even the mailman stepped in and tipped his hat and had a healthy dose to his memory.”
Death, for the people of that era, and every era before, was no stranger and brought no squeamishness. There was nothing mysterious about death beyond those questions we still ask—will we see them again in the next life, and why, so often, do the good die young while old bastards hold forth for far too long? A family mourned and drank, and fought and keened and then stumbled into church for the funeral; they buried their beloved and stumbled about some more, and life went on.
We are much more fastidious, these days. Our dead, even when they die at home after a long illness, are collected by authorities who certify them for the bureaucrats and then deliver them to the funeral homes, where trained people work wonders with fillers and cosmetics and open their “presenting room” doors to a family that has been prevented—some might say protected—from so much as straightening a tie knot or fastening a bow for their loved one.
Death has become so sterile and detached, so grisly and unknown and “other” to a generation that has loved nothing so much as its own life, that one can perhaps find some charity for those who recoil in shock when they hear about a couple bearing their dead infant son home so his siblings can see him. For a society that has experienced death as a hidden thing—something that happens behind a closed door or within the depths of a womb via suction hose—bringing death out into the light might seem “crazy” and “weird,” especially to a perpetually adolescent mind that has no concept of the sort of victory that can be found there.
It’s difficult to find charity, however, when such minds attempt to politicize a family’s open-hearted efforts to find consolation and closure in the celebration of a short life well-loved, but I think we must. Best, perhaps to simply pray for the politicizers, that their hearts are turned before their guts have burned from the acid hate that led them so easily to that place.
And pray for all of us, too, for our lives have become so intruded upon by conventionalities as to leave us unprepared to deal with difficult but natural realities—hinting that we no longer know ourselves, at all.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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