Category Archives: Death

A Little Neighborhood Justice

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As the man lifted the lid of the trash can, he absentmindedly tossed in a bag of trash. It seemed to fall for several seconds, ending with a cacophonous thud in the bottom of the plastic receptacle.

He looked down the street, noticing which houses were alit with the signs of life, which houses had cars parked in the concrete driveways, and which seemed absent any movement. He knew from experience that often the quietest places contained the most activity, concealed behind doors and curtains. The deepening twilight resonated with an eerie sheen across vaguely reflective surfaces. Nothing stirred and it seemed as if the nothingness and quiet might have lengthened into an eternity of twilight.

He noted the absence of filtered whimpers and screams. The quiet was disconcerting and unnatural. It occurred to him that so many things seemed to be more fully defined by noticing those things which seemed to be missing. It would take some time for him to remember what a normal neighborhood was supposed to sound like.

So many nights he had passively noted the shouts, the cries, and the fractured silences from next door. Sealing his doors and windows only diminished their volume, yet somehow amplified their significance. It was an effort to distract himself from the evidence of violence – until this morning when an unseen valve mitigating his own violent thoughts opened completely.

Quiet now seemed like a musical cadence missing a beat of syncopation. It made him uneasy, like when he entered a dark and unfamiliar room, his hand vainly seeking the contour of a wall switch. He was unsure as to the velocity with which slumber might greet him in these circumstances.

After a few moments, he heard a door creak open. As he turned to the right, he saw a narrow beam of light cast its gaze upon the suburban sidewalk leading to the neighbor’s front door. A second later, a subdued housewife ambled out, shutting the door behind her. The man could hear the woman grunt with her efforts, undoubtedly a residual effect from so many nights of abuse from her husband. The man now knew that in time the housewife would regain much of her agility and zeal for life. An ember signifying a lit cigarette danced lazily in the air as she moved. She walked across the expanse of her driveway, lifting the lid of her trash receptacle. As she lifted the black bag to drop it inside, a pale arm fell across the outer rim, fingers pointed toward the ground in mock accusation.

She casually lifted the arm, dropping it without much consideration back into the trash, placing her new bag on top of whatever the lifeless arm might be attached to.

The man smiled in the dark, knowing the housewife did the same, a shared intimate secret born inside a few bloody seconds two hours ago.

After so many nights of questioning and endless tears and abrasions, they both had reached the same mortal conclusion, one punctuated by a single shot reverberating inside a cramped living room. Good neighbors help one another and do what must be done.

As the abuser fell to the floor, eyes wide in dead surprise, both participants locked eyes and deeply sighed, both relieved to be past the moment of action. They silently and mutually agreed that the abuser’s fate was predestined and unworthy of comment.

While the body lay cooling on the living room floor, they attentively listened with heads tilted for a minute, and then without conversation lifted the dead husband and carried him outside, unceremoniously tossing him inside the trash container. Just as no one had come to help during the preceding weeks, months, or years of fists and screams, no one had come to investigate the exclamatory ring of a solitary gunshot.

Now, two hours later, the ticks and clicks of a typical night were all that greeted them as they both went back inside their respective houses.

Sleep would come easily to them both.

The neighborhood settled back into its nocturnal routine of normalcy, ignoring the momentary lapse of its civilized veneer.

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A Funny Burial Anecdote

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This is a truish story and names have been changed to confuse the guilty.

A famous writer, an author of at least 20 books, died in Springdale a few days ago. He was well-known for his sense of humor and dry wit. At my recommendation, his family went to a funeral home of which I speak highly. Although he usually doesn’t do so, the funeral director Scott offered to view potential cemetery plots with the family, even though he hadn’t yet met them and didn’t know the recently deceased. His dedication to customer service is quite legendary. I doubt he would have helped me had he not owed me a huge favor – but that’s a story for another day.

The family chose to visit Bluff Cemetery in Springdale. The place is known for its beauty and proximity to the creek running through downtown. Scott pulled in behind the new Cadillac the family of the deceased arrived in. The Springdale Parks worker had already arrived in a white pickup, his camera and clipboard in hand.

After the family exited the car and straightened their respective ties and dresses, Scott accompanied them to the periphery of the cemetery, situated below the overhanging trees. It was certainly a beautiful spot.

To make small talk, Scott nervously asked the family about the deceased. “What did your loved one do for a living?” he asked.

The youngest son answered, “Our dad was a famous writer. You’ve never heard of him?” He seemed surprised. “In fact, all of us are writers.”

“No, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know him or know of him. I read a lot, though.” Scott wasn’t sure what else to say.

The parks employee pointed out the available spots and mentioned that the price was adjusted, based on the reduced size of the plots. “We can dig with much more accuracy than we once could,” he added.

After a moment of silence, the youngest daughter looked along the edge of the cemetery where there were remaining spots available, seemingly measuring their size by her careful steps. She immediately started shaking her head.

“This simply won’t do. Not at all. Dad was too important of a writer to tolerate this kind of mistake.” She seemed agitated.

“How so?” Scott immediately asked.

“The plot’s too thin!” The daughter said, and then laughed loudly.

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PS Writers always get the last laugh.

Goodbye, Butterfinger

It’s befitting that I stand here now on a diminishing Halloween afternoon. Hours ago, family and friends hovered near, all collectively somber and looking for solace in the dried grass and impervious headstones. There’s nothing more dangerous than the familiar terrain of the faces of friends and family while we are gathered to dismiss someone from this realm. It’s easier to look away or to retreat inside oneself.

I didn’t even know of your death until today, when someone said, “X, you’re not going to believe this. He died. Butterfinger died.”

We weren’t friends in the traditional sense. But we shared some outrageous moments, most of them fueled by your ability to go places most people would hesitate to cross. There were times when our shared laughter lifted us up to heaven, raucous and not befitting polite company. Life, though, it thrived in those moments. It had no choice and I couldn’t help except to laugh harder as you dared to strangle the oxygen from around us.

After a death, we think we know a person or have gauged the sum of what they were. No matter who you are or who they were there is no escaping that we are simply floundering around with our presumption of knowing them. It is a rare thing for people to congregate after a death and all agree that they share a clear picture of who someone was while they walked amongst us.

As we often do, we personalize a death and transpose ourselves, wondering how wrong people will have been about us. It’s a human tendency, one powered by the relentless ticking of the clocks we all pretend to not hear. I think of all the hats I’ve worn and of the distinct ways I’ve touched people, for good or ill. Depending on your perspective, you measure me with hate, admiration, humor, seriousness, apathy or total disregard. We all leave different maps behind us, often several of them; often, many don’t align. Our friends and family are left to conjure some semblance of reason from the mismatched versions of ourselves in the puzzle pieces. It’s not so much a question of who is right or wrong. Rather, it is one of the complexities of our lives and personality as we overlap with differing groups: work, church, family, and friends.

While I can’t speak for everyone, I honestly mean it when I say that I pass inordinate amounts of my life without sharing anything essential of who I am. Of course, I can explain it away by using words such as “business,” or “work,” or whatever other label excuses our inability to properly enjoy our lives as the human beings we are. People who know me in these moments of expected impersonal interactions will have no means to measure me, though they struggle to do so.

Having the reputation of being someone with an exaggerated sense of dark humor, I swear an oath to you that I don’t use these words accidentally or lightly. While I am no speaker for the dead, I am not one who enjoys the idea of failing to pay homage to the totality of all the people who lived inside a single person. I embrace the idea of the breadth of someone’s life, even if some of it doesn’t lead to the glorification of our potential. We all know and recognize that almost all of our life is comprised of little moments and many of those most enjoyed in retrospect are not ones we would wish everyone to see.

Butterfinger, though, he was a strange creature, powered by the touch of the strangest humor and affections. Because I didn’t have a Venn diagram between the sliver of life I shared with him and his other realms, I can’t speak to those other spheres. But I can say without qualification that in the sense that I knew Butterfinger, he was alive in the truest sense, though many would not understand him in this regard. Were he an angel, it would be one prone to mischief and fun-loving devilry.

I’m not here to argue about who he was, what motivated him, or even the significance of his relatively short life. I’m here to tip my hat at a crazy angle toward his outlandish laugh and smile.

Goodbye, Butterfinger. May your first night in the soil bring forth the warm remembrance of all the zaniness that I remember you for. May your memory be confirmed and conformed to each of us, all of whom knew a piece of you as you ambled about on the surface of this planet.

I’ll stop by another day and place a Butterfinger on your little piece of the earth. And I’ll probably laugh like a dark bastard as I do so.

No disrespect – only remembrance. In a life of small moments, it is more than sufficient.

September’s Ancestors

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I’m not sure how meaningful my words might be, coming from someone who loathes the idea of burial but loves cemeteries and their connections to history. It’s a cliché to point out they serve as reminders to us, in part because we so seldom feel the urgency they offer. When we do, it is usually because we feel the icy fingers of oblivion as subtle symptoms in our bodies or when it reaches out to visit someone in our private circle.

On rare occasions,  people we’ve never even met get a moment of remembrance, as is the case with this story.

As is frequently the case of late I found myself with a few stolen moments and chose to walk a long serpentine path along Huntsville in Springdale. As I walked along, I looked up and noticed I was approaching a cemetery that I had not visited in probably 20 years and certainly not since the road had been widened. The last time I had been there, almost everything about Huntsville was awaiting transformation into a multicultural artery on that side of town. Normally I would have walked past, my eyes gauging the sights as I moved on. Perhaps in part to the relative chill in the September air and the declining sunlight, I instead turned and opened the latch to enter the shady cemetery grounds. It then it occurred to me that I had just researched someone laid to rest there. So with a little more anticipation, I walked the outside perimeter and without even searching happened upon the graves I had seen in my genealogy searches.

I found Daniel Lemke’s headstone. He was born on the eastern edge of Poland, in a small place named Chelm, almost into Ukraine. He came to the U.S. in 1901 and chose Wisconsin as his first home here. His son Martin Julius was born there and moved to Northwest Arkansas 70 years ago. Daniel died 72 years ago, or 27,317 days ago. His son passed 14 years ago, some 5,455 days ago.

I find it difficult to put myself in the place of someone who would travel so far around the world to land in an unknown place, with new exotic words to learn. It’s fitting that Daniel’s great-grandson would find himself in a similar situation, on another part of the planet, forging an entirely new life for himself. I imagine, though, that these places here in Northwest Arkansas have a pull on his heart. He can always return here and sit by the fire, remembering his life on the other side of the world.

While it’s likely that my path crossed with Martin in the way that almost all proximate lives do, a complex intertwining mesh of ‘almost,’ I don’t have any claim to knowing his presence. But thanks to the prism of time, I can see where his path led and look back through the footprints of those who came after him. Because of him, I learned of a place called Chelm and its part in history. I wonder how much our footprint will be memorable and not simply because of our safe choices.

I think that sometimes history’s bell rings more deeply when the hour grows later and the air turns chill. The grass inside the cemetery grounds was bright green, still waiting for the arrival of frost mornings. There’s something about these times and these moments.

It was a pleasant sensation to be standing in such a contemplative place, thinking back to the lives of people unknown to me. As the busy avenue continued unabated behind me, I alone possessed the refuge of that cemetery, even as it possessed me.

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Aunt Barbara

 

She was always her voice, a timeless southern drawl that caught your attention, rarely raised in anger but often seeped in laughter or surprise. I should have more easily forgotten that she witnessed the part of my life I consider to be the most base. It was a perplexing part of my life to know someone so kind in all the ways people should be good could be capable of looking sideways; only as an older person did I even begin to see how foolish much of my insistence toward oversimplification stripped her of her own individuality. She, like me, lived her life with the gifts she had available; unlike me, she did it with more openness.

It is without rancor that I say that she mounted an offensive for family, always being the cohesion against the twin foils of her siblings who provided either raucous debauchery or aloof superciliousness. When I changed my name almost 3 decades ago, it was she who demonstrated one of the deepest wounds, though she of all people knew in her compassion-filled heart that my motivation was one of self-preservation.

She lived a great life, even when tempered by my strangely fluid definitions. Laughter, family, and even tragedies came and went; and yet, her sense of humor tempered every peak and valley. She stayed in the small hometown that both defined her and amplified her. Such a small place of diminishing returns certainly will be less bright without her.

If this world were to have more of her, there would be more happiness and more hands on shoulders, and even more glasses of iced tea in the summer. (Because while iced tea wouldn’t cure your ills, it would always give you something to enjoy in life, if someone were there to accompany you as you drank it.)

The video was taken in her yard on a July day some 21 years ago, out on the edge of Monroe County, in a place almost everyone speeds through to get from one place to another.

Not her.

She was always where she needed to be, just as she is now.

Her voice lingers on the edge of highway 49, though, evoking the gentlest reminder that so many great moments can be found where you are.

I can hear her voice now, drawling out a slow and welcome ‘hey, y’all.’ .

Overmorrow

I had to dive into a digital haystack to find a word that had slipped from my grasp, one that someone once convinced me was sorely lacking in English.
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The word is ‘Ikstuarpok.’ It’s an Inuit word; when loosely translated means, “the act of waiting so anxiously for someone to arrive that you go to the window every few moments to see if they’ve arrived yet.” Those lucky enough to have cherished pets probably witness this frequently, as pets aren’t equipped to differentiate between permanent departure and a quick trip elsewhere and back home to safety.
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It also aptly describes the human emotion we feel after a tremendous loss. Despite a certainty that the person we anticipate will never again cross the threshold, we can’t stop ourselves from physically and mentally peering out, hoping against all rational hope that somehow, we are wrong. I’m certain it is very common, as it is usually expressed as the longing to hear someone’s voice for even one more minute or to spend one singular day with someone we grieve.
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We see resemblances in faces at the grocery store, hear a laugh that echoes through time, or catch a snippet of a melody that pushes us into the undeniable memory of the someone who forever eludes us. Harshest still, our treasonous minds lull us into a dream wherein we believe and feel the person who is no longer with us. Waking, we feel the agony of loss as if it were occurring again, the wound once again ripped open. No matter the pain, though, we relish the slight agony of loss, so powerful are our minds at recapturing memories.
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There’s also an English word that has sorrowfully departed our language: ‘overmorrow.’ It’s a word that means “the day after tomorrow.” It has an additional meaning. It evokes the hope and faith of a future in which we no longer feel the urge to look around, to jump up the window, or to see a face that is not there. We know that tomorrow will also hold surprise and wonder and perhaps we will be content to remember with love and fondness anyone no longer with us.
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Overmorrow.
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I wish it were overmorrow for some of my friends and that their windows were already full of sunshine, whether they peer from within or not.
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Arkansas Funeral Care and Comments


Warning: Serious Comments… Arkansas Funeral Care is in the news in Central Arkansas. They are a “reduced cost” funeral home and have helped many families. If you aren’t familiar with what happened, you can search for it easily in the news.

My mom’s funeral was arranged through them in September 2013. Even though I wanted mom to be cremated, my sister had cared for mom the last weeks of her life. Since she was making the decisions, it was her choice to bury her instead of cremation. I’m in no way criticizing my sister for her choices because she was doing what she thought was the best. My mom and I had a horrendous relationship the last year of her life up until she was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. My sister stepped in and made all the decisions for her care and her remains. She chose burial over cremation.

Even though I’m known for my commentary, I reluctantly admitted back at the time that mom looked absolutely terrible during the viewing. It wasn’t because she had battled cancer, as I’ve lost a few close family members to cancer – as have we all. Whoever had prepared her either lacked the skill, time, or interest in masking her condition. I felt sorry for the other family members, knowing that they were in a terrible position of having to mouth the words of condolences that are appropriate to funerals. We were all thinking the same thing – that mom should not have been prepared for a viewing in that condition. In some way, though, I will admit there was even honesty to the way she looked. Most people aren’t accustomed to seeing viewings like that, though. For anyone who has seen the movie “The Green Mile,” the scene in the basement walkway wherein Tom Hanks answers the warden’s question of “What the hell happened up there?” with the quip “An execution” reminds of the situation everyone was in. What would have been the other option at that point? Any change would have resulted in awkwardness and unanswerable questions, too.

At the time, I was glad that the pallbearers were literally pallbearers. Arkansas Funeral Care employed no lifters or mechanical devices. The pallbearers lowered mom with long slip ropes into the ground on the edge of the swamp and at great risk of plummeting into the grave themselves. Honestly, I thought it was a nice reminder of our connection to death. To me, it seemed a more honest way of burying someone. The funeral home did it to cut costs and toward that end, I can’t criticize. Most people haven’t seen someone being lowered into the ground by human hands. The gentleman who came out on behalf of Arkansas Funeral Care handled himself with professionalism and I think he held up well in comparison to many other funeral homes.

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Over the years, I’ve become more and more vocal about my preference to cremation over burial. The expense is secondary to the logic and appeal of cremation. But craziness such as that alleged to have occurred in Jacksonville is exactly the ongoing reminder for people to at least consider cremation – not just for the cost, but for the lessening of the burden on families.

As I read the news, I also felt sorry for some of the other funeral homes who will be hurt needlessly by the goings on at their competition. Many can and do work with families and sometimes help people without profit. Those good places are going to be looked upon with more suspicion, when so many already distrust the funeral industry. We play to our own fears. It’s okay to ask tough questions but try to remember that no funeral home can do well if their reputation is tarnished.

Use a funeral home you know and trust and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Among the questions I hope you ask are those about cremation.

10102013 Almost All Things Should Have a Transfer Requirement Upon Death

I would like to change the way we own things in our society. Apart from the side effect of encouraging people to be more responsive to their own lives, it should also simplify the ridiculously complex legal issues surrounding our passing.There’s no reason to fail to simplify so many things that make death and dying so complicated. If we were ever to endeavor toward such a change, the lawyers might object, but we can figure out a viable way to satisfy most people’s concerns.

I would  revise automobile titles so that a “transfer upon death” would be required to be listed on each title, removing arguments about vehicles from the equation when someone dies. The same would be true for real estate. Anything with a registered title would indicate “transfer upon death,” and not be subject to our archaic laws related to wills and estates. “Payable upon death” declarations for bank accounts, stocks and bonds would also be required; again, exempt from the death process.

For most things, it would be impossible to own or register something without clearly delineating how the item should be handled when the original owner dies. Once, when I mentioned something similar to this, a clever person responded by saying that we should pass a law indicating that if you don’t indicate a person to inherit, everything will be donated to the IRS for sale. He said this should be enough of a kick in the pants for most people to become motivated to followup.

Without writing 100 pages regarding the details, I think that the general spirit and idea are profoundly good ones. As with all things important, it is complicated to address. But should it be addressed? Yes.

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“He’s at peace…”  “He’s in a better place…”  “He was a good man…”

I would rather have my carcass loaded with dynamite and detonated on live television than have the traditional inanities uttered after I’m gone, especially if untrue. (Please televise it on Fox news as a sort of beyond-the-grave satire if you choose the detonation method.)

Feel free to speak ill of me after I’m gone – if you have legitimate grievances about how I behaved toward you. If you think I was a nefarious bastard, please say so. If I am guilty of an offense, the truth is not weakened by you saying so. My ears won’t shrivel from your comments. I’m sure that you’ve noticed that no one’s motives are gauged honestly while we are alive. It is foolishness to expect that once we are gone that the same craziness, gossip, and outright insult won’t follow you to the grave. Each of us has our own multitude of opinions about everything and everyone and the truth is that we all judge other people, even if we don’t voice it. Whether you like to call it “judging” it or not is a matter of semantics. Much of the disinclination to speak ill of the dead derives from the hope that we will not be complained about once we are gone. After decades of observation, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most of the people I’ve been around, watched and listened to have very specific opinions about people who pass. Most seem to maintain the social norm of not being actively vocal during the traditional mourning cycle.

(“It’s generally considered bad form to take a bullhorn to a funeral. ” – X )

But the opinions of individuals remain, layered under a blanket of social acceptance.

Each person has a spectrum of opinions about himself or herself – we are different people to many other people. I have one relative who will undoubtedly be lauded as a great, religious woman, whereas my personal opinion about her is much more harsh. When she passes, it will not be my isolated and personal opinion that lasts; at least, probably not. The fact that our paths don’t merge frequently is even more reason to discount the negative opinions of people in your life – they matter no more in death than while you are alive. My pious relative’s reputation won’t suffer due to my minority opinion. Her opinion that I’m an ass won’t affect my reputation, either.

If I’ve not used my time here appropriately, don’t feel saddened or express remorse. I’ve had a great, long life, even if cut short by a burning meteorite falling from the sky tomorrow morning on my way to work. (Although, dying on the way to work would be a horrible legacy, much like falling over at some hideous place such as Kohl’s or Bed, Bath and Beyond.) Each day has been of my own choosing, with each hour and minute used deliberately and in full realization of how fleeting and precious our time is. If the meteorite hits me tomorrow, don’t stop and waste your time wondering why my time was cut short. Instead, stop in amazement of how dumb we get sometimes, forgetting that time is the most precious commodity and that one person can live more in twenty years than some people live in seventy. I wasn’t promised any length of time and what I did with the time I was given was my responsibility.

I don’t mean to diminish the heart-felt words of others who can express themselves easily after someone dies. I’ve know a few people who are masters of the spoken word, those rare people who can describe a cow pasture while convincing you it would be a great idea to sleep under the noonday sun in the middle of one. Social decorum is generally desirable, but I’m not so sure that it is what is best for us as a species – not all the time.

Most people seem to need the traditional platitude patter and commentary that pervades services and gatherings after a death. In my case, I would love a joyous sharing, even if not all the content is glowing and positive. A service anchored in truth is much more desirable. We’ve all been to the funeral where the evil sister is sitting in the corner, cigarette dangling from her lip, mumbling invoked words of hatred toward the deceased. We all talk about it at the fringes of our overlapped conversation. Everyone had their own ideas about the departed and it is weird to me personally to categorically reject its presence and effect on  everyone. Better to air it out and learn to respond to the awkwardness collectively.

Everything I write in this blog is a feeble attempt to badly describe what’s going on in my head. That, too, changes, much like a series of sunsets. (Each individual sunset, although strikingly different, can still be recognized as a sunset.)