Sustained reflection on another’s life

The death of an elder in the family circle pulls us out of our ordinary routines and obligations (including the blogs we write) and forces us into sustained reflection on that person’s life. In this case — my aunt’s death (see previous post) — it was a good experience.

M. Harder burial, Aug. 16, 2010

Not that this reflection was particularly organized as a formal activity, though some parts like the eulogy and service certainly were. Most of it happened in the course of planning, hosting siblings from out of town, and attending the viewing and funeral and burial. The reason we were doing out-of-the-ordinary things such as coming together was (Aunt) Margaret’s end, and so of course we shared round the death stories, and gave voice, for several days in a row, to our memories, questions, even speculations. When a few of us met, ostensibly to work on the eulogy, one cousin did most of the work (you can’t really write by committee) while the rest of us combed our late aunt’s photo albums and swapped stories the pictures provoked. On Sunday, with siblings and my mother gathered at our house, we pressed Mom for opinions about her late sister (and also her living ones), and we paged through some diaries Margaret left behind, reading nuggets aloud to one another. The open mic time at the funeral lunch yielded a further variety of reflection about this one woman’s life.

My brother who emceed that session reminded us that we really don’t know other people very well. It’s true. Even in the case of those we feel we know, the communal sharing and reminiscence that the rituals of death “force” upon us can enlarge and fill in the portrait. It’s an old saw that it’s too bad all this, especially the nice things that are said, happens only after the person dies. Yes, also true, but then again, perhaps because life is multi-faceted and necessarily busy, it’s the only way it really works. Death compresses the exercise of knowing, intensifies the reflection. For one week, it was all about someone else. The stew of things I’ve remembered and heard about my aunt will nourish me now as I pick up my regular routines.

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