When Another Brooklyn narrator August moves north with her father and brother, her mother does not go with them, but her absence in Bushwick isn't exactly real. The first sentence of August’s story is: "For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet." Her mother remains with her. August waits desperately, believing she’ll come from Tennessee to the family’s New York doorstep. "She’s coming," August tells her brother. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow." Her confusion moves ahead of her, like a dense cloud.
When I was younger someone told me that funerals are for the living. "After all," they explained, "what use do the dead have for them?" It was backwards from what I’d been taught, which is that funerals are for and in honor of the deceased. But I didn’t disagree—what would a dead person want with their best suit and a plate of comfort food?
It seems to me a funeral’s purpose is subjective, and changes with culture, religion, and individuals. Like all rituals, we attend funerals with our own beliefs and private meanings in mind, and many religions around the world hold that death rites are necessary in shepherding the soul’s safe passage. When August is grown, she travels globally as an anthropologist to research funereal practices. "In Eastern Indonesia," she finds, "families keep their dead in special rooms in their homes. Their dead not truly dead until the family has saved enough money to pay for the funeral. Until then, the dead remain with them, dressed and cared for each morning, taken on trips with the family, hugged daily, loved deeply."
Only after closing the book did it strike me that there was no funeral scene or ceremony for August’s mother. Without the opportunity to externalize and grieve openly, how could August have begun to accept the loss of her? A funeral can mark the end of life and the beginning of mourning. If our sorrow never manifests as real, how do we move through and come out of it?
I think death is harder to accept when it is obscured. Something that has always bothered me about funerals is how alive the person looks, how their appearance doesn’t match reality, and how clinical and distanced the whole process is. Here in the U.S. we "restore" the appearance of the body in order to suggest peacefulness. Professionals in strange rooms prepare our loved ones after they die, painting blush onto their cheeks before they are quickly put into the ground. It is generally an uncomfortable experience that does not directly address mortality. I’ve wondered if others think of their own deaths at funerals with fear, the way I’ve certainly thought of mine.
Last year I stumbled across an interesting movement called "death positivity." People across the country are talking about how to die better. Organizations like the Order of the Good Death are making funerals more natural, personal experiences. They are addressing how to fully accept death and process our own grief and fear, while celebrating the life of the person we love. They believe it would be healthy for our society to stop avoiding death. Difficult to look at, and strange, sure. But I think it’s beautiful. Why wouldn’t we want to reevaluate our cultural practices around something that goes on forever?
To carry on the conversation about death rituals in Another Brooklyn and in the U.S. today, One Book, One Philadelphia is hosting a discussion with experts on death positivity on March 3 at Laurel Hill Cemetery. From Victorian funeral rites to changing social practices, we’ll ask a death doula, a historian, and a hospice nurse lots of questions, and learn about something that profoundly affects us all.
**Check back every #OneBookWednesday during the Reading Period for some more One Book food-for-thought!**