In her novel, "The Ten Thousand Things," Maria Dermout describes a funerary rite from Indonesia.
The body is carried out to a ceremonial proa (a kind of galley with an outrigger and sails like wings). Family and loved ones gather in the water. The proa will sail to the other side of the horizon, where the rowers will bury the body on an island, if there is one, or at sea.
As the rowers prepare to sail, everyone sings a long, ancient song of the "Ten Thousand Things." It is a litany of everything and everyone that the beloved had ever known, which they sing so that s/he will remember them when their journey ends. As Dermout describes it, it's a deeply moving experience, sung to the rhythm of the lapping waves and the muffled drumbeats from the proa's musicians (who set the pace of the rowers), improvised specifically for every person. In colonial times, the songs had to be sung very softly in the middle of the night, so that the Dutch officials and the missionaries wouldn't get all imperialistically peeved.
Recently, I witnessed a death at work. A client had been smuggling drugs onto the floor, and he overdosed early one morning, just as I was coming on shift. The paramedics were already there and working to save him, and they worked for over half an hour, but his lungs had filled and he was gone.
As I helped the medical examiner search the room and the body, I couldn't stop looking at his face, masked by breathing tubes, tape and frantically placed IV lines. The caked blood looked like scratches of dark dirt, not the rich red stuff of life. I had known this man--not well, and not for long, but he had kind eyes, and spoke softly, walking the floor with a distant and distracted look, like he was hardly there. Save for that last bit, this body bore no resemblance to the living man I'd known.
When my Grandpa died, I'd watched the death happen, felt the pulse fade, watched his eyes dull and his cheeks drain of color. I was able to see the operation of Death that transforms us, so that the living person I'd known and loved did remain alive in my heart and my memory, while this physical person became an object, a relic, truly detached from the identity of the person. Seeing this actually happen in front of me unmasked the exoticism of Death--I do not fear what I have seen and held in my hand, felt with my fingers and my heart. Even if it is inevitable, and will come to me, too. Because I am convinced that it cannot touch the Ten Thousand Things. I am convinced that my Grandpa was not the one whose cheeks yellowed, whose skin turned cold and waxy; I am convinced that he, and the one with the kind eyes and the faraway voice, had already left for the island beyond the horizon when their bodies became objects and messy relics.
So now I can say 'death' knowingly, and without the capital 'D'--and this opened my eyes to the immortal part of us all, that soars undying above the stars, as Ovid says.
Originally, I'd started writing this mass e-mail as a means to send you a copy of a picture of me in this year's Bridge Pedal, of which I am always inordinately proud. But in the writing of this, I've come to realize that every one of you are yet another of my Ten Thousand Things, and that I hope to be of yours. I hope you do not mind too much the mass sending. Please accept my thanks and affection, as this continues to be a long and difficult piece for me to process, and I could not write through this without you. By way of thanks, below is a link to an image of transient earthly glory and triumph.