If you came this way

                                        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.

Here’s a photo of the “blossoms have appeared in the land” banner on a day that looked much like this past Saturday.

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.

English translation:
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.


30 responses to “If you came this way

  1. Thank you so for this, Joy — particularly the pieces from Eliot and the Schutz with its score. That was particularly wonderful! I, too, have missed funerals that I still sorely regret. Thank you.

  2. Doing good vs. doing nothing. Yes, that is the real struggle. And also, Schutz may be my very favorite composer. And one who, I think, understood the importance of a good funeral song. The Musicalische exequien is one of my favorites.

    • Ms. Spy, I never heard of Schütz until I got to Emmanuel. I get chills just remembering tiny snippets of his. Now I need to give a listen to Musicalische exequien. Thanks for the tip!

  3. I will be quoting J.K. Rowling for the rest of my life – she (via Dumbledore) urges us to remember the difference between what is easy and what is right.

    I’ve sung a lot of funerals in the last few years, all for people whom I did not know, but felt I met through their service. Thanks for putting this into words.

  4. All the tears shed in the last weeks around Jeanne were beautiful wrapped up in love on Saturday. The Eliot summed up the prayer-ful presence of Jeanne’s spirit mingling with ours. Thank for your opening your own heart – and offering even more opportunity for grace. I wept again this morning…and for once it felt good. Thank you. bj

    • Brett, Jeanne’s memorial service was simply stunning in many ways and on many levels. I feel indebted in no small measure to you for connecting me to Jeanne. Thank you for your amazingly generous heart and spirit.

  5. There are lots of small ways to do good. Some of them are never seen by the naked (put some clothes on, eye!) eye but somehow reverberate in the air and are noticed, if only at the unconscious level. It’s always a pleasure to read your words.

  6. Thank you for this, Joy. You are so very well named.

  7. I once (and only once) soloed at a funeral — an elderly Cambridge stateswoman, known by one and all, though not by me. I learned there not to look at the congregation if you want to get through it with any voice/dignity/composure at all. I did know Jeanne, though I know her a lot better now, and I guess it’s never too late. I have a mantra that gets me through funeral singing: if I could sing for Craig [Smith] I can sing for X. The hardest thing is to sing for a contemporary. And as we left the sanctuary in silence, I found myself thinking about the AIDS victims, our comtemporaries, friends, fellow musicians, whom we sang out in the ’80s. Then as now, it’s the company of people who played or sang with the person who’s gone that makes it possible, at least for me, to get through it. thanks, Joy, for this wonderful piece. And thanks, Jeanne, for one last hug.

    • Thank you for your gifts of song, Jaylyn. And the silent processions — wow. I couldn’t help but sit through that service and think, “I want that. And that. And that. And that, too. And also that.”

  8. You say in your words what I know in my heart. And I am grateful. When I worked in hospice, I rarely missed the funeral of one of our patients. It felt important to know each person more fully, to say good bye, in company with people who had known them for a different piece of the journey, to acknowledge the gift of each life. I often wished I had known them better and sooner and longer. And Jaylyn is right…it’s never too late. Thanks, Joy, as always.

  9. David McSweeney

    Joy, this has touched my heart beyond words. Thank you for sharing this, and for honoring our dearest Jeanne. As PW so eloquently stated during her homily, today I’m immersed in the sacrament of tears, and it’s in large portion due to you. It’s a good thing that I have my own office!

    • Dave, you are such a dear. Thank you for connecting me with Jeanne (and Brett). Love is a beautiful mystery, made all the more beautiful by our tears.

  10. Thank you, dear Joy, for reminding us of such important – yet simple – things that make our lives more meaningful and fulfilling: To do good instead of nothing, to attend a funeral as a way of truly honoring a life, even to the point of getting to know the person better after death. I was profoundly moved by the poetry Jeanne had chosen for this service; it spoke to me as never before. Yes, the dead *can* speak to us. They can, in fact, sing. And inspire us to honor our best selves. Jeanne’s amazing gift to us all was that universal hug of deep and abiding love that was felt Saturday afternoon. I feel it still, thanks to your beautiful writing. Thank you so much for sharing your lovely spirit and heart~

    • Kit, I was so deeply moved by how Jeanne was speaking and singing to us, and inviting us to speak and sing our own lives more vividly. I suspect the hug was not the last one at all, but the beginning of, as you put it, a universal hug of deep and abiding love. Thank you for your kind and generous words and the spirit that moved you to share them.

  11. Coincidentally, I went to a funeral of someone I didn’t know last week, too. It’s true that it had such an elevating effect on me. He was the father of one of my friends from high school – the kind of friend you have in your classes and see at parties or dances, but don’t really know well at all. Still, we had found each other on Facebook and though we never saw each other again after high school, suddenly, I was reading a note of the news of her father’s death and a request to meet me for dinner the night prior to the funeral. Such intimacy where there had never been any before…except, my mother reminded me that my friend’s mother and she came to my father of blessed memory’s shivah our senior year, which I didn’t recall, so I guess we’re even…. Your story moved me, as always.

    • Sarah, I would say that you and your friend are so much more than even. (: And how cool that your mother could fill in such a significant piece of the story of your connection with this friend.

  12. On the one hand, I do believe that, as Donne says, no man is an island and any man’s death diminishes me. On the other hand, I think that Auden is right and that when Yeats is lamenting that the day of his death was a dark, cold day, there are dogs going on with their doggy life under the bright blue sky and that’s the way it is. I have mixed feelings about funerals.

    But like the other commenters here, I am glad you act on your convictions and end up being a thousand times nicer than I can aspire to be. The closest I come to your philosophy is telling my kids “always go to the awards ceremony.” Because they’re smart, and awards come easy to them, and those ceremonies are dead boring. But I don’t want to contribute to the kind of situation where half the people don’t show up to get their awards; that can make the people who did show up feel foolish. I strive to at least live up to the philosophy expressed by Buckaroo Banzai: “don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean.”

    • I tend to think that children these days (listen to me being a cranky old geezer!) don’t spend nearly enough time feeling bored. So bravo to you, my friend!

      Death is too stinking long, and dogs apparently have no sense of that, silly creatures that they are.

      Thank you, Doctor P, for being so incredibly good at bringing poetry into the conversation.

  13. Thank you, Joy. I can’t think of anything better or wiser to say. Just ‘thank you.’ DRB

  14. When your loved one dies, grace comes in countless little acts. But that time when many gather to memorialize—to promise, really, not to forget—holds you up like nothing else. Good for you.

    • Bruce, here’s to keeping the web of love and remembrance strong. And here’s to love being mightier than death, even when we least believe it or expect it.

  15. Michael Beattie

    Missing this service was really heartbreaking to me and now reading this beautiful piece, I feel almost as though I was there. Thank you for helping me mourn for and celebrate Jeanne. You are one special person.

    • Michael, thank you for your comment. I don’t know if this piece conveyed it, but I felt as though the sanctuary was filled to bursting with the spirit of all the people who weren’t able to be there. It was very moving. And, of course, I hope you know how special you are to me. So we’re even. (:

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