I write this note from Paris on the 26th day of April, the day following the memorial service for my brother John who died on the first of the month. “Peace be unto him,” as we used to say as young Catholics.
The service took place in a small chapel beside the crematorium of the Pére Lachaise Cemetery. There were eleven of us present, including John’s sons, Jean-Baptiste and Jean-René and Bénédicte, his former wife. The others were friends, none of whom the family or I had met before. It was odd to share such an intimate experience with people who were essentially strangers. Stranger still for me, as the service was conducted almost solely in French, so I felt immersed in an environment that felt vaguely surreal. Heightening the surreal aspect was the music chosen for the occasion, starting with a haunting Chet Baker saxophone piece followed by Johnny Cash singing “Get Rhythm (when you’ve got the blues),” David Bowie’s “Starman,” and the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” to accompany the departure of the flower-strewn casket. I think the chaplain conducting the service felt the choices were in questionable taste, but the boys had chosen songs that held meaning for them and captured fond memories of their early life with their father.
The experience was meaningful in a number of ways. Most fundamentally, it reminded me that death connects us all. It’s an experience that all of us will have and that most of us dread. For those left behind there is, often, a deep sense of loss, an empty space where the fullness of life should be. And yet, that space gets filled– filled with memories shared, stories related, connections revealed, relationships strengthened. This is true, at least, for what Albert Camus called “a good death.” Or, at least, “a good bereavement.” There were tears in the chapel and a few smiles as memories were revealed and relationships laid bare. My brother’s relations with his family were strained, then fragmented, and finally, broken. Yet, the love shared by the mother and sons made manifest the closeness of the remaining family members.
Memorial Day will soon be upon us. We will be remembering those who died in the service of their country. We might reflect on how the scourge of war has devastated so many families, revealed brokenness in places and created a long path toward healing for others. Grieving together creates bonds that allow us to feel the fullness of our humanity. The depth of our grief can reveal the depth of our love. It’s up for us to decide if the loss we experience through the death of loved ones brings us closer together or further apart. We need not grieve alone as long as we are in spiritual community. We alone are the creators of that community. May we give ourselves wholly to the task.
See you at church,