Speaker for the Dead

Hannah Joy with her Favorite Uncle

EJ’s Mom’s funeral was held on Saturday. Except the for reason for the trip, the 10-hour drive (5 hours to and from) through beautiful scenery was very pleasant with good conversation. Hannah Joy was babysat by her Favorite Uncle, who cuddled her and took her for drives.

We made it through the funeral. The pastor of the church basically just read the obituary and then family members had an opportunity to share their memories of her. I cried through the funeral, feeling stress because of underlying family issues, grief over the loss of their Mom who was always kind to me, and grief over the loss of my own Mom and family. Except for my Dad, everyone in my family is still alive, but we have been lost to each other for many years.

On the way home, JJ mentioned that he was a little disgusted that the minister merely read the obituary, mispronouncing some names and skipping others. “He didn’t even know Grandma,” he said. So we talked a bit about how that often happens. Many times a minister has never even met the person he eulogized. We’ve attended some funerals in which such a glowing picture was painted of the deceased, whom we knew was not a particularly good person, that we were afraid that we had mistakenly attended the wrong funeral service.

JJ and I both mentioned the second of a series of science fiction books by Orson Scott Card, which had had a profound effect on us both. The first book, Ender’s Game was made into a movie, although the book is much better. The second book is called Speaker for the Dead. Each of these books won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and were among the most influential science fiction novels of the 1980s.

A sort of subplot of the book describes the rise of people who were Speakers for the Dead. A family could hire a Speaker, who would thoroughly investigate the life of the deceased and “speak” the unvarnished truth of his/her life at the funeral service. They would honestly describe both the strengths and weaknesses of the person, both the successes and failures, both the kindnesses and the cruelties. You’d think it would be awful, but the deceased was not described as a one-dimensional caricature that was barely recognizable, but as he or she truly was. It actually beautifully highlighted the humanity of the deceased in all his/her complexity.

EJ said that everyone at the funeral told the truth about his Mom. She was an amazing person who helped the needy, played games with her children, and taught them valuable lessons. However, as is usually the case, family members only described the positive aspects of her. I think Speaker for the Dead described a beautifully honest celebration of a life in the book, but I am doubtful it would work in the real world. On the drive home, however, EJ lovingly described stories of his Mom that no one would ever tell at a funeral–some that described the good or funny qualities of her, and some that described her flawed and negative aspects, which has caused long-lasting damage. It presented a more balanced look at who she really was. She was human.

And we also spoke a little about my Mom. JJ has a very negative view of my Mom. For a while, he called her by her first name because “she never was a grandmother to me.” I asked him not to do that because it hurts my heart. Until we moved north, we lived relatively close to my Mom and three of my sisters. Jared experienced up close some of the problems in my family. But I deeply love my Mom/family and I remember some good things in my childhood. JJ’s love of history can be traced back to my Mom’s love of history. The times JJ and I paused to look at interesting insects are echoes of my Mom pausing to watch ants in the sidewalk with me. The only reason why I don’t have contact with them is that we couldn’t overcome the damage. One of the last times I wrote to my Mom, I asked her to please let’s forgive each other and start over. She refused. There’s not much a person can do then.

EJ’s family lived farther away–many of them out of state–and we rarely saw them so JJ has less unpleasant memories of them. He thinks they are better, but EJ says he thinks his family is far worse than mine. My siblings all recognize that our family isn’t healthy. I don’t think EJ’s family has the same awareness of dysfunction. So Speaker for the Dead:  EJ’s family isn’t without serious flaws, and mine isn’t without redeeming qualities.

I’ve told EJ several times, including on the way home from the funeral, that if I die before he does, I want a very private “funeral.” I don’t want anyone there who never loved or valued me. I don’t want phony tears or eulogies because I abhor pretense and hypocrisy. In fact, I don’t want any official service at all. I just want people who truly loved and valued me to gather together. They can be my Speakers for the Dead who share memories of the things I loved, the good things I did, the silly or stupid things I did, even the mistakes I made. I hope that if anyone is sick or struggling financially, they don’t try to attend my “funeral.” I cherish my loved ones, I think their lives have immense value, and I would never want them to put their lives at risk or hardship trying to attend my funeral. Besides, I won’t know if they attend or not, since I won’t be there.

Of course, I told EJ that it’s perfectly fine if he ignored everything I just wrote. I won’t be there, and what I want most is for him to be comforted. He has my “permission” to do anything or invite anyone that he felt would comfort him, even if I said that I didn’t really want it. One of my sisters once told me that she has warned her husband that if she died first, she didn’t want him to remarry. “I’ll haunt him forever if he does.” But I told EJ to remarry with my blessing. Why would I want him alone and miserable for the rest of his life? “Just make sure you find a nice woman who will make you happy,” I told him.

I hope I die before EJ because I am a wimp and don’t want to live in a world without him.


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