Susan and I attended a memorial service this afternoon, the third such we’ve been to in the last two and a half months. I used to be unequivocal about memorial services: I told others, and myself, that I loved them. You heard the best stories about the best qualities of the person being memorialized, and it was a great chance to catch up with people that you didn’t see very frequently. I also believed that there was a kind of a universal guilty gratitude felt by all attendees at a memorial service: at least it was not your name on the front of the program.
I no longer believe in my theory of “guilty gratitude.” As I’ve grown older and the age of deceased person has gotten closer and closer to my own age, I’ve come to feel the icy hand of my mortality closing around my neck as I sit in these services, and I suspect that I’m not alone. The older we get the more we are aware that no matter how long we live, there is still a heap of stuff that remains unfinished at death, and the more that has been left unfinished, the greater the frustration we feel at what is ruptured by death.
As each life is a node in a network of relationships, when one dies that node vanishes, leaving a bunch of broken ties. Spouses, children, relatives and friends who are close to the person who has died have to deal with the detritus of broken ties.
As I sit in these memorial services and contemplate my own mortality, what fills me with sadness is not the specter of the loss of my life, but the sense of resigned duty others might feel at having to sort through all my unfinished business, wondering at the origin of those “karmic bills” left unpaid at my death.
For all the elemental beauty of the individual person as a source and transmitter of light and relational energy, our lives have even greater significance as a node in a web of relationships that includes our family and friends. Each and every death is an assault to that web of relationships, so the damage inflicted is real. Each and every memorial service I attend drives that point home a little harder, and makes me a little sadder.