My father died on New Year’s day. It was, as a friend put it, a cruelly sad way to start the new year, even though my father was quite old and had lived a long, successful and fruitful life. Despite our annual, glittery, champagne-infused fêtes of disavowal, the “devouring teeth of time” (Hume) devour all of us too, and it’s worse than a hangover to be reminded of this on January 1 and to be drop-kicked with whiplash speed from celebration to mourning.
During the gathering of family, the food preparation, the stories and photographs, and the decision-making about the memorial service, a line from Jim Morrison’s American Prayer (music by the Doors) slid onto my head’s center stage and kept playing there like a stuck karaoke track: “Death makes angels of us all, and gives us wings where once were shoulders smooth as ravens’ claws.” I know: it’s not Bowie (that was the next weekend’s loss)*, but the line does succinctly encapsulate the human purposiveness of funeral services. ‘Eulogies’–from the Greek meaning praise or (more literally) good words [eu, good/proper, and logos, word]–really do abstract and reframe what a single, enfleshed life was and did to the good. We take the rough and heavy-laden marks of flesh, we take the cognitive and emotional limitations of finitude, the complexities of love and family and relationship, the robustness and ambivalence of the quotidian, the exhausting dash between work and hobby, between obligation and pleasure, and we transmute them by word and story and gesture into feathery translucence. Dad may be an angel now for all I know, but I also know we made him one and that that was what our gathering together was supposed to do.
We do this for the dead one, and we do this for each other, I think, as I consider the technical meaning of angel (‘messenger’). Funerals first gather family, and then friends, and then community, in widening and rippling arcs that from one perspective reflect a diffusion of intimacy into friendship and out to acquaintance. But from another perspective these more distant arcs of acquaintanceship deliver messages of intimacy. The nuggets of story and insight that came from men who worked with my father decades ago added to the tiny bubbles of solidarity and joy from neighbors and churchmen who went fishing with him on the weekends, and the secretaries who said my dad was always the sweetest of gentlemen to them. As all of these angels delivered their bottled messages to me in the funeral receiving line, I felt my father take on a three-dimensionality that was, sadly, lost to me while he was alive. The narrow, raven’s claw grip that he had on me released to flutterings, to a marvel at how a single body’s words and relations and gestures and thoughts and memories spin out, in superfine and superstrong spider’s silk, the sedimented ballast of social interconnection.
*My dad’s mother, for whom I was named and on whose 80th birthday I was born, died the same day John Lennon was shot. I prefer to think of this as empirical proof of a strong spirit-connection between the Hamners and powerful musicians.