Too Close to Death
by Elea Kemler
At a ministers' retreat someone read a passage about why ministers make people feel uncomfortable. It is because we dress in earth-colored clothes, and when we shake hands with people, we hold their hands a second too long and gaze into their faces and say earnestly, "How are you?" All the ministers in the room howled with laughter at the accuracy of this picture.
But the passage went on to say that the real reason people find ministers weird and don't really want us to come to their parties, even if they invite us, is because we are too comfortable with death. Like funeral directors, we don't respect our society's fear of anything related to serious illness and dying. We go striding into hospitals and sick rooms as if the smells of cancer and antiseptic don't make us want to gag, as if it's no big deal to sit down by the bed and hold the dry, skeletal hands of someone who is dying, to watch people gasp out their last breath, to murmur words of comfort to shell-shocked relatives.
One December I buried a baby for the first time, a three-month-old who died of sudden infant death syndrome. The coffin was white and so tiny I couldn't believe anything could be inside. It looked like the kind of Styrofoam cooler you bring to the beach. The parents had come from the Midwest to bury their baby next to his grandparents. At home the day before the funeral, I read the service I had written over and over until I could do it without crying.
On Saturday, the day of the funeral service, there was a snowstorm and the ground was so frozen and snow-covered that we decided to postpone the burial until Monday. Monday morning was sunny and still. The path through the cemetery to the grave was carved out of snow banks packed down so hard that people sat on them like benches while waiting for the family to gather. A square hole had been dug in the ground, the fresh, brown earth vivid against the white snow. Using ropes, the funeral directors slowly lowered the little casket into the hole. I was afraid they would drop it with a thud, but they were careful and the casket gently found the bottom of the hole.
The baby's father was from a Jewish family, and he had asked that we say the mourner's Kaddish. I did so haltingly, badly, reading the Hebrew from a card the funeral director had given me. Others in the small group recited the prayer from memory, eyes closed, rocking gently back and forth on their feet. Then each person took a turn shoveling dirt onto the casket with a small shovel. The baby's mother went last. She did not take the shovel the funeral director held out to her, but fell to her knees by the grave, sobbing, her head bent almost to the ground, her hands covering her face. Her husband leaned down over her. Her adolescent daughter crouched behind her, resting her head against her mother's back. Nobody moved. It was completely quiet except for the sound of crying.
The two funeral directors and I stood across from the family, on the other side of the hole in the ground, like three dark-coated sentries guarding the grief in front of us. It was cold. We stood there for what felt like a long time. Finally, one of the funeral directors, who had a sweet, boyish face and straight, straw-colored hair, said gently, "It is time to go now." Slowly, the family rose and turned away from the grave.
I called the sweet-faced funeral director later in the week. I felt as if the family's grief had changed the pull of gravity around me, making the air heavier, like I had to push through it just to move. I was blunt; I asked him how he could stand the sadness day after day. I don't remember what he answered, only that he was kind. I didn't ask him what I really wanted to know-how to make the air around me lighter. I didn't tell him that what I really wanted was to go to a loud bar and get drunk and smoke cigarettes and laugh. I wanted food and loud music and bodies holding each other close. I wanted to forget all about small white coffins and raw holes in the ground and mothers on their knees crying. I was embarrassed by my intense desires.
It would be a long time before I began to understand that for me, desire was the pull back to life and I needed to follow it. It would be a long time before I learned to respect and listen to my body's craving for pleasure in the face of loss, before I understood that it is all right, even good, to remind myself, after I have stood close to death once again, that I am still alive.
The Rev. Elea Kemler is minister of the First Parish Church of Groton, Massachusetts. This essay appears in How We Are Called: A Meditation Anthology, newly published by the UUA's Skinner House Books. Available from the UUA Bookstore, (800) 215-9076; $8.