Burying the Dead

A summer encased by life and death. A colleague gave birth to a beautiful boy in June. He thrives. And Ryan died in August. This week his family will bury him.

The military and especially the Marine Corps, know how to bury the dead. The majesty of the ceremony, the deeply moving traditions that acknowledge this life that has been lost, and with it the life of the many before it, sacrificed in battle, brings a kind of beauty in grief. The caisson, the casket, the flag. The walk to the graveside in Arlington Cemetery amid the rows and rows of evenly spaced headstones. The lamentation of music, sonorous, dolorous. The crisp uniforms of the honor guard, the precision of the marching, and even more, the sharp precision of the folding of the flag. And then its presentation to the nearest kin, for Ryan, his wife Sheila–a moment key to the tradition, the pose of the officer kneeling before the family, presenting the flag, a familiar shape in photographs in the newspaper and yet also so keenly personal as to seem to step out of the precise military protocol while yet written into it.

There is both beauty and necessity in ritual, for it helps us comprehend the finality of death. As we pray for the dead to cross over into eternal life–no matter our beliefs, we all wish for this perpetuation of the person we loved–we too must cross over, for we must reconcile ourselves to going on with life. In one of the most influential classes I took at Yale, the philosopher Louis Dupre, spoke repeatedly of the important role of ritual in comprehending the incomprehensible. In “Ritual, the Sacralization of Time,” he writes, “Of all the burdens man has to carry through life, I wonder whether any weighs heavier than the transient nature of his experience,” and he goes on to assert, “That what was no longer is, and that what is  will soon no longer be, is the condition from which man most urgently desires to be saved” (Man and World 19: 143; 1986). That sticking point, what was is no more, the mute horror and grief that arises from that reality, demands ritual as the best means of solace.

In class, Dupre noted that when speaking of the dead, we use the expression ‘dead and buried’ because it acknowledges the essential role of burial in our understanding of death. The ritual of the funeral, of the burial, marks our movement back into life.  Because at the same time that we grieve so powerfully for the dead and for our own mortality, we grieve for going on. In his poem, “The Dead Woman,” which actually has a political or human rights theme,  Pablo Neruda eloquently states our dilemma

No, forgive me.
If you no longer live,
if you beloved my love,
if you have died,
all the leaves will fall in my breast,
it will rain on my soul night and day,
the snow will burn my heart,
I shall walk with frost and fire and death and snow,
my feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping, but
I shall stay alive . . . .

So on Wednesday, I will put on a black dress. I will walk with family and friends, and we will honor the dead and we will honor the living who remain. We will pray for Ryan’s eternal life. We will perpetuate his memory as best we can. We will grieve and we will go on living.

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