Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's just a shell

There's this 'just a shell' theory of how we ought to relate to dead bodies. You hear a lot of it from young clergy, old family friends, well-intentioned in-laws - folks who are unsettled by the fresh grief of others. You hear it when you bring a mother and a father in for the first sight of their dead daughter, killed in a car wreck or left out to rot by some mannish violence. It is proffered as comfort in the teeth of what is a comfortless situation, consolation to the inconsolable. Right between the inhale and exhale of the bonecracking sob such hurts produce, some frightened and well-meaning ignoramus is bound to give out with, 'It's OK, that's not her, it's just a shell."

I once saw an Episcopalian deacon nearly decked by the swift slap of the mother of a teenager, dead of leukemia, to whom he'd tendered this counsel. 'I'll tell you when it's "just a shell",' the woman said, 'for now and until I tell you otherwise, she's my daughter.'

She was asserting the longstanding right of the living to declare the dead dead. Just as we declare the living alive through baptisms, lovers in love by nuptials, funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters. It's how we assign meaning to our little remarkable histories.

Page 23, The Undertaking - life studies in the dismal trade, by Thomas Lynch.
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