In my ongoing effort to become a walking mound of quirks and eccentricities, a few years ago I decided that I would no longer attend weddings or funerals, not even my own. The former, given said quirks and eccentricities, never struck me as likely; marriageable people for some reason insist on abiding by “standards” and practicing “good judgment,” which of course rules me out of all consideration. As for the latter, I plan to leave behind a grisly tableau that will leave forensic androids scratching their cerebral servos for centuries to come, so what remains of me is apt to be a mealy puree in the bottom of a mop bucket. I suppose they can bury whatever drips from the squeegee if they’d like, but my theory of the mind prevents me from reckoning that as funeral attendance per se.
The difficulty, alas, is that I find weddings tragic and funerals absurd. I’ll focus on the latter today, since it bears on the moral of our story. You see, here is my quandary: I have an excellent memory, and I am capable of forming independent judgments of character. This, as you might imagine, is a source of great personal sadness, and it bears heavily on my approach to funeral-going.
What often happens, at least in my experience, is that we suffer the lives of many others secondhand, filtered through some narrating intermediary. So, for example, we might learn about a boss we’ve never met from a disgruntled employee, or we might learn about some tyrannical parent from a put-upon teen. People vent, and when they vent they tend to blow toward those ears they suspect will be sympathetic to their plight. Such sympathy often leads to an intimacy of one kind or another, and the like-minded listener may well commiserate with the disgruntled and the put-upon, feeling deeply for their suffering and forming strong opinions about the abominable boss or parent in question.
Do you catch my drift, Dear Reader? Were one of my generally sympathetic disposition, one might well hear of the behavior of such others only when they were at their worst: those times when they gave great offense to our narrating intimates, those times when they were most thoughtless, ignorant, selfish, or cruel. Given such consistent accounts, I might well develop an informed opinion of the character in question–an opinion that is not necessarily subject to complication or leavening by all the other material my intimate opted not to share. So at day’s end, when it comes time to don the black suit, I might only know of the decedent as a monstrous mother, a frightful father, a deplorable daughter, or an insufferable son. That’s the frame of mind I would be obliged to hide at the funeral home, and I would spend much of my time suspecting others of harboring the same sense of the dead, even as we expressed sorrow for his or her loss.
This, in a manner analogous to my prior post, is the sum and substance of our experience of stories. We get only what we see, the words, thoughts, and behaviors offered up for our appraisal, and we fill in the imaginative blanks therefrom, often in consistent colors. The color scheme we opt for, however, need not be the one the author would like us to choose, nor can she be certain of her power to paint over the scheme we have chosen. Following a recent screening of Beowulf in Grendel, for example, the class quite reasonably concluded that the director wanted us to feel sympathy and/or pity for Grendel, a troll-boy bereft of his troll-father and thus hellbent on troll-vengeance. Because Grendel was also guilty of rape, however, many members of the class opted out of that forgiving assessment. Those viewers, also behaving quite reasonably, selected the incident that mattered most to them, formed their opinions, and dismissed the rest as irrelevant. If the director intended to overwrite or override that valuation, he would have to devise some means of eclipsing that incident in the viewer’s memory, and I think it an impossible stain to efface. Like the good book says, sometimes dead is better.
In life this effect can be appalling to witness from a distance. We might watch a breaking story on some terrible crime and later see follow-up reports from family members and neighbors, all of them intent on representing the character they knew–a fully-realized individual incapable of such an act. And at funerals, particularly those we attend as the friends of mourners, we lack a rounded understanding of the person they knew, even if the complex business of knowing (which for them included the good, the bad, and a great deal in between) is momentarily inflected by their sense of loss. If we as companion comforters are only privy to the bad, those horror stories passed on to us at times of stress and strife, then the work of sympathy becomes incredibly difficult. Strong stories are hard to rewrite, even when time is on our side.