Shakespeare had Mark Antony say to the crowds: “I come to bury Caesar not to praise him…” He then went on to do both. As do we at the wakes and funerals of those we love. But even though death is only the other side of life as our philosophers tell us, still we remain reluctant to let them go. Very much as the poet wrote: “Because when the bells toll, they toll for thee…”
What makes this aching reluctance most revealing is who we most ache to let go. Family and friends are a given; but what about those many public figures? The people we never knew personally but with whom we had felt a bond from afar?
Presidents are an obvious example. At its core the death of a president is like the destruction of all the father-figures in your life. And even if we hated the man when he was alive, it’s hard to carry that hatred to his grave. Witnessing the sudden death of both Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy in one lifetime has been more martyrdom than anyone should have to bear.
Celebrities too are an example. Many became fixtures in the living rooms of our mind. They seem to have always been there, and when suddenly they’re not, the hole is hard to fill. Depending on your generation, among such have been: Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Andy Griffith, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, and that obituary tomorrow morning that will catch your heart totally off guard.
Also there are the deaths of those you once upon a time knew but lost touch with. Like Charles Schultz’s “little girl with the red-hair,” you too have tucked some dear ones inside the inner sanctums of your memory. Then, even without having seen them for all these years, the announcement of their death is like a cold sharp blade slicing off a little piece of you you had assumed would always be there.
When death comes, as it insists upon doing, those who remain are all like Antony. Standing there needing to both praise and to bury; then needing to firmly wrap ourselves in the garment of our life for the journey ahead…
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