Anthology of Funeral Blues: How-to for Modern Mourners

Remembrances and Celebrations: A Book of Eulogies, Elegies, Letters, and Epitaphs , edited by Jill Werman Harris. Pantheon, 308 pages, $25.

When my mother passed away last month, quite suddenly, of a massive cardiac at age 81, I found it well-nigh intolerable to answer commiserating phone calls, asking me prying questions about how I was doing; but the letters of condolence that flowed in were thoughtful and soothing. And surprisingly well-written. I have never been able myself to write a decent condolence letter, as if respect for death precluded me from turning a phrase well; but these people rose to the occasion. It made me wonder about the properties that might best comprise a healing reaction to such final loss. Sincerity, certainly, seems a requirement, and gravity; but some honesty and intelligence are also much appreciated, to cut through the fetor of cliché, which is one of the most strangulating aspects attending grief.

And now this collection of responses to death has arrived in timely fashion, enabling us to sharpen our thoughts on the matter. The editor, Jill Werman Harris, who seems young and industrious, has written a serviceable introduction, pious and restrained in tone, in which she sets out her intentions: “It is my hope that the many selections in this book will enable ordinary people, not just writers and natural orators, to give eulogies that are affecting and meaningful.” The book thus seems aimed for practical utility rather than literary edification–a how-to guide for the mourner in a hurry to consult before the memorial service. The entries are short, kept shorter still by maddening abridgments. Still, the editor has tracked down enough surprises from other countries and centuries to keep it interesting.

The book is intelligently divided into four sections: eulogies, letters, elegies and epitaphs. Eulogies take up more than half the book, which is a pity, since many of them have that stodgy diplomacy one would expect from public address. Sugar-coating and lofty, patriotic vacuity are much in evidence. A chance to consider the eulogy historically, as a rhetorical genre from the Ancients on, is denied by the editor’s decision to pick mostly from the 20th century. “On the whole,” Ms. Harris writes, “earlier funeral orations tend to be monotonous, unimaginative, and, from my perspective, essentially without charm.” This is a pretty ignorant statement, especially as most of the modern eulogies selected for inclusion here are decidedly dull. Ms. Harris rightly says in her introduction that a great eulogy captures “the idiosyncratic essence of an individual;” but, caught in the old funeral orator’s dilemma between honoring or speaking truth about the dead, she usually chooses filial respect over idiosyncratic candor. Very occasionally, as in Alfred Kazin’s clear-eyed appraisal of his friend, the critic Mark Schorer, or Ned Rorem’s mischievous assessment of Leonard Bernstein, we actually get a chance to see some judicious, balanced intelligence applied to the contradictions of personality.

As one might expect, the freshest, most human traces of poignant pain are generally found in the letters, which are more unguarded. Sometimes the griever is the actual correspondent, as when Horace Greeley writes to Margaret Fuller about the death of his 5-year-old son, or Charlotte Brontë tells her friend Ellen stoically of the death of her sister Emily. “Yesterday we put her poor, wasted, mortal frame quietly under the church pavement. We are very calm at present. Why should we be otherwise? The anguish of seeing her suffering is over.” There is an eerily whimsical letter by Sir William Osler to his wife, in the voice of their dead boy; and a chilly but deeply correct note from Abigail Adams to her political enemy, Thomas Jefferson, on the death of his daughter; and an anguished cri de coeur from Tennyson.

The tone of the collection careens between decorous and raw, almost as if the anthologist were torn between muffling the survivors’ pain for their own good, and exposing wounds anew. The consolations offered by the speakers, to others or themselves, tend to boil down to a few ideas, repeated to the point of threadbareness (but whatelsehavewe?):Timehealsall wounds; the deceased are in a better place; their suffering is at an end; they are not really dead–their souls remain immortal, while our memories of them live on.

The section devoted to elegies–poems commemorating a loss or addressed to mortality in general–has many of the good old standbys: Dylan Thomas’ “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” William Wordsworth’s “Surprised by Joy,” and so on. It seems a little too traditional to me, however, being composed almost entirely of rhymed, metered verse, which results in a conventional air.

A sometime anthologist myself, I cannot help but be struck by the amount of work that went into the selections, as well as the inevitable distortions. The point in reviewing an anthology is not to take to task an editor for this or that omission, since all collections are finite and must exclude something; but rather, to disentangle the hidden narratives and emphases.

Each anthology is a sort of disguised confession of neurotic fixation. That’s what makes anthologies fun. In the case at hand, we have not only the ostensible obsession with death, but a strange preoccupation with political martyrdom. Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Biko, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Andrew Goodman, Mahatma Gandhi, Medgar Evers and Yitzhak Rabin are all commemorated. The heroic victim, alas, often inspires a flatly self-righteous response, but there are some touching moments: Ossie Davis’ memorializing Malcolm X as “our own black shining Prince” and the almost unbearably moving tribute King Hussein paid to Rabin, followed by the more personal speech of Rabin’s granddaughter. A more persistent if unacknowledged pattern is that almost everyone commemorated in this book is famous–Diana, Princess of Wales, Jerry Garcia, Jackie Kennedy. Instead of Remembrances and Celebrations , perhaps it might have been better titled Remembrances of Celebrities .

But finally, all quibbles aside, the book under review is a valiant, valid and useful effort to bring past words of comfort to present sufferers. If these words often prove unsatisfying, that may have more to do with the inconsolable nature of death than with any inadequacies of selection.