If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion.
Almost seven years ago I had one of those famous “NPR driveway moments.” I had been driving home from work, and a “This I Believe” segment came on. It was called “Always Go to the Funeral,” and its refrain still runs through my head with a frequency that still surprises me–much in the way that every death, no matter how anticipated or imminent, is surprising.
As I sat in the driveway listening to Deirdre Sullivan talk about this life lesson her father taught her—Always go to the funeral—I thought about important funerals I’ve missed. And it’s not as though the life-changing moment of hearing “Always Go to the Funeral” somehow inoculated me from ever again missing an important funeral. But I’ve been to a lot more funerals since that driveway moment, thanks to this stranger named Deirdre Sullivan.
This is partly why, this past Saturday, I spent much of a chilly and luminous New England spring day in church, attending the memorial service of a woman nearly two years younger than I, whom I’d never met. Cancer took Jeanne McCrorie from her family and friends far too soon.
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
The pick-up choir of more than 30 of Jeanne’s friends and family (some of the finest singers in the city) rehearsed Heinrich Schütz’s “Selig sind die Toten (Blessed are the dead)” as some of the early birds arrived. The heartbreaking beauty of Schütz’s motet was a musical painting of grief as the price of love.
From the comparatively dark alcove of the church where I was handing out programs, I could see an almost fluorescent sliver of cornflower blue sky. A banner hung over the door, so that mourners trudged up the steps under the words, “blossoms have appeared in the land.”
Amid the intense sensory collision of sight and sound between the music, the banner, the sky, and the repetition of greeting the steady stream of Jeanne’s shattered survivors, it occurred to me: I am meeting Jeanne right now. This is how we are getting to know each other. Hello, my newest friend!
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
People have all kinds of excuses for why we don’t go to church, or to weddings, funerals, baptisms, christenings, whatever. I know, because I’ve thought of many of them myself over the course of my life. Thankfully, seven years ago, Diedre Sullivan cut through all that so perfectly:
In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.
One of the things I’ve learned is that, a lot of the time, it’s not really that much more difficult to do good than to do nothing. And even when it IS much more difficult, here’s a bit of Zen-like wisdom from my oldest brother, who once told me, “How ever far out of your way you are willing to go, THAT is the way.”
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Excerpts from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets. These were among the readings at Jeanne’s memorial service.
When PW was meeting with Jeanne and her family to plan the memorial service, Jeanne said she wanted the service to be like “one last hug.” Mission accomplished. It was lovely to finally meet you, Jeanne. I’ve heard so much about you. I look forward to getting to know you better.
The Cambridge Singers perform Heinrich Schütz’s (1585-1672) arrangement of ‘Selig sind die Toten.’
Selig sind die Toten,
die in dem Herren sterben,
von nun an.
Ja der Geist spricht:
Sie ruhen von ihrer Arbeit
und ihre Werke folgen ihnen nach.
Blessed are the dead,
that die in the Lord
from now on.
Yea, the Spirit speaks:
they rest from their labors
and their works follow them.