Author’s note: It goes without saying that death has been all around us this past week. I wrote this article after learning of the murder of Christina Grimmie, and before the massacre in Orlando. I struggled with whether or not this was an appropriate time to share it. In some ways it seemed particularly timely, but in other ways arm chair musings on death seemed all wrong. Eventually siding with the former, it ultimately seemed as though it was an important time to have these kinds of dialogues. It was never, ever, my intent to cash-in or offend. This is probably the part where I should preach about how we should appreciate our lives more or whatever, but I’ll spare you of that. Just know that in this very wacky, ruthless, unpredictable world, a world in which I currently have a band sleeping in my house whose name I cannot remember, a world in which I literally misplaced my car earlier this week like you would misplace your keys, a world in which you can’t even enjoy a night out in an environment where you can express who you truly are, I love you.
Well friends, it’s another heavy one this week. If you find yourself in need of some lawlz, I recommend tuning in next week because all of that talk of Anna Nicole in my previous article has me thinking. Well, I won’t give too much away.
It’s sort of a weird weekend in the hood as I write to you. We’ve got this festival going on that I’ll try my best to explain to those blessed and cursed enough not to be from the bastard son of D.C. and Philly – Baltimore, Maryland, U. S. of A. My best advice is to go watch John Waters’ original Hairspray, but if you don’t have that kind of time on your paws, I’ll make an attempt at the abridged version. Basically we’ve got this unique breed of working class white people here. Well, was-ish. Gentrification has kind of pushed the authentic strain into the periphery and replaced it with a “quirky” (god, I hate that word), marketable version of it all.
And that’s precisely what this festival is – women dressing up in the traditional beehive that used to be in demand at every East Bmore beauty shop and making a public spectacle of the average Baltimorean’s inability to correctly pronounce the letter “O” (made extra unfortunate by the fact that we’re home to Joe Flacco and Natty Boh). Oh, those lower-class whites, they’re so eccentric and cute. Still waiting on the poor black people festival. I guess no one really wants to step right up to the spine severing simulator…unless it’s in the back of a vintage paddy wagon that also serves mirco IPAs and hand-ground polenta.
As per usual, I’m probably being a little bit harsh. Like in most scenarios, I don’t think there’s intentional malice involved, more just problematic trends that no one really stops to think about. I guess if there’s anything to be really offended about, it’s the stroller city that migrates in for two hours of quirky-wanking; short enough to avoid taking accountability for the condition of the city, but just long enough to fuck up the parking for everyone else. Most glaringly, though, does your baby really want to buy a $60 dream catcher made out of locally-sourced hemp and knock back a few flamingo-shaped hand grenades? NONE OF THIS MAKES SENSE.
Determined to still enjoy my Saturday, I decided to just quietly remove myself from the shitstorm because like most normal people, I only talk a big game on the internut. I picked up some sushi (who else gets really excited when you can find the brown rice kind?) and went to go tear it up in the only place I knew where I could get some goddamn quiet – the local Episcopal cemetery. My hair was already teased as high as Elvira’s so when in fucking Rome. Maybe it was the silence. Maybe it was too much time thinking about how names go from belonging to living, breathing people to just marks on a tombstone. Maybe it was because I finally settled my hanger. But it didn’t take long to go down one of those mental planes I detailed last week.
With everything in life, we deal. We make do. We construct answers, explanations, traditions, and plans of attack. And the conundrum of death is no different. Let’s begin with the end – the graveyard itself. In urban settings where space is scarce, cemeteries often end up doubling as parks (especially in Europe, it seems like). We make space for the dead, but not as much for the living. More often than not, we feel the need to have designated plots. It gives us some peace of mind to have a physical spot for a lost loved one, to fill their spiritual absence, to know where they are, even if the “they” is gone.
But just how fair is this tradition to the dead? Again, these names etched in stone all belonged to real people with passions, professions, and secrets. And now they are reduced to the confines of a box. Please, turn me into ash, throw me in the ocean, off a cliff, off fucking Space Mountain, just, please, don’t put me in a box. The only way I can make sense of the tomb is to conceptualize it as a trade-off. We have the humanist comfort of family shrines at the cost of one day having to invest our vessels in the same real estate.
The scripts surrounding death are curious as well. They have been thrust upon us once more in the wake of the shooting of Christina Grimmie. These kinds of events conjure up the same ghosts across the generations – John Lennon, Dime, and so on. Regardless of the victim, the rhetoric around these events seems to remain the same. Prayers for the affected families. Maybe a soap box rant about the shameful shortcomings of security, violence in video games, and America’s failing mental health system. The bullet rings out and the same dominos fall. Maybe there really is just no good thing to say when tragedy strikes.
But maybe these scripts act as a safety net, a mechanism for masking our true feelings. Our upset, our anger, our intrigue. It all leaves us too vulnerable, so we hide. It doesn’t make us bad people, not in the least. It actually seems to be a carefully-developed product of the evolution of the human consciousness (Westernized generalizations, I know). In other words, it’s not that we’re cowards; it’s that we don’t want to completely fathom the things that hold the power to destroy us. The script is the levy that holds back the thoughts and emotions that would drown us if it were to break.
And then there’s the performance of a funeral, which, as of late, seems to be being replaced by the less dogmatic “celebration of life.” As society gradually loses its religion, a solution had to be developed for the quandary of where and on one terms to make the final stop before the cemetery. The structure of a church/temple/mosque service is fulfilling for some, sure, but there’s a new bunch that seems to be determined to carve out areligious meaning, to find significance in a loved one’s lived life and not their next spiritual destination.
It’s interesting how the ceremony can make things feel so much better or so much worse. Reflecting on the funerals I’ve experienced, it seems like whichever way the pendulum swings, it’ll end up in the opposite direction of what you had anticipated. When the sister of one of my good high school friends passed away in a horrible accident, I expected her celebration of life to be one of the hardest experiences I’d ever endure, and in many ways it was. But, life was talked about that day in a way I had never thought about before. The last young man who spoke concluded with “at the end of the day, we’re all just a collection of memories,” which has continued to echo in my mind, serving as a reminder to keep my own collection of memories vast.
When my paternal grandmother passed away, I quite frankly felt nothing. I was too young and too distant from the woman, whose mind had been eaten too early by alcohol and Alzheimer’s to ever get to know. If anything, her funeral was just a day off from the fourth grade. But when I had to watch my dad stand up at the altar of that hollow hell of a church, emotionally torn from the inside out, and deliver some rehearsed speech about her tribulation-filled life that he had to try to paint with a rosy brush, I felt angry and betrayed. Why were “they” making him do this? When you’re a kid you think that there are actual, like, dystopia-style overlords dictating all of these norms and expectations, but then you grow older and realize they’re just arbitrary abstractions that we abide to – all of which being escapable only in the experience of death, even as the norms involved in how the living deal with death linger, like a ghost.