Graveyard, Eulogies & Elegies, or What We Want From Death

Welcome back. Welcome to the threshold. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts and comments. I can’t wait to resurrect things with you today. On that note, I want to start with Anne Boyer, whose book, The Undying, won a Pulitzer Prize. The book is about journeying with breast cancer in a culture of positivity that turns into its own conformism.  It’s okay to be sad. It’s also necessary to acknowledge that not all melancholy is pathological– not all sadness is a symptom of disease. And everyone carries their sadness differently. I want to challenge you to replace “quiet” with “disquiet” in your writing today. To stay disquieted. To approach the page with that subversion of quietness.

As we know that air exists by how impossible it is to live without it, and through that knowledge are led to all that might count as the divine, and as we know how one thing is different from the other by the beneficence of the contrast of day and night, and as we know the possibility of what does not yet exist through the appearance of our dreams without authors, and as we know our hours are all we have, so it is that the hours must become the grounds for all we want and need.

Anne Boyer, “The Heavy Air”

One can respect death without romanticizing it, although the romance between poets and tombs has existed longer than the twitter hot-take. In 18th century Britain, the “graveyard school of poets” led by Thomas Gray determined that “a gathering of tombstones” served as the perfect setting for ruminations on the fleetingness of life. I learned this from Billy Collins, who makes a habit of conversing with his parents when he visits their graves.

Writers talk to the dead all the time. Poet Dara Weir wrote “Something For You Because You Have Been Gone” out of the belief that “we have the right, and maybe even the obligation, to whisper to the dead in poems,” to continue a form of conversation.

Tess Gallagher wrote a poem about climbing into bed with her dead husband, Raymond Carver, and lingering there in the cold of death with him, to float

            on the strange broad canopy
            of the abandoned world.

At the heart of the eulogy is a rousing, a re-membering, a piecing-back.

The Mom is different in Alabama. The daughter is different in the company of her friends at the lake. The person in the eulogy is a social construction, a shared creation that includes what a human meant to others.

Lynn Emanuel waited 20 years to revise a eulogy for her father. When she did, she found it “inflected” by D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Ship of Death”, which ends:

“Oh build your ship of death, oh build it!
For you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.”

I think we all want to believe that we are the most important thing in a life, even if that life is not our own. We all want to be remembered as significant in the story about others. My mother would be alive if she hadn’t been alone in Amsterdam. My love and omnipotent medical advice would have diagnosed the embolus and saved her.