In those occasions when the authoring of a eulogy becomes necessary, it is often written through a veil of recent grief which equally elevates and obscures memory. A period of mourning is the most likely time to elicit a touching memorial, but perhaps lends itself most towards the tendencies of the living to imbue the departed with an ill-fitting narrative. It is that error which I find myself thinking about today.
There are few among us who are equipped to accurately write a eulogy for anyone but ourselves. Save for those circumstances where a parent outlives their child, it is rare for a person to have an all-encompassing knowledge of another’s external life. A son cannot speak to his father’s life before his birth except what he was been told through story; likewise, a spouse may only know pieces of their love’s life before them. Those with the most intimacy or proximity to a man’s life are often asked to pen a memorial, but even the best secondhand knowledge is just that-secondhand, with gaps of years or even decades of life left unexamined. And captured as we are in our roles with one other, the eulogy is further narrowed through the prism of the deceased’s relationship to the author, burdening the script with our own prejudices and expectations.
Perhaps the most grievous of these expectations is that death fulfills the arc of one’s life. A lifetime of being fed stories conditions us into expect events to fit a preconceived narrative, even when the story may be tragic or uncomfortable. That belief is a powerful urge to dispel when attempting to package a person’s life into a set number of lines and paragraphs. We often speak of death as being the ‘closing’ of something, as if an individual life is a book which can be taken off the shelf for highlighting and editing. But it is rare that a life concludes itself so neatly, each storyline and subplot concluded. More often, death is an interruption of those narratives, one which careens others’ stories into unexpected directions. And so our eulogies attempt to wrestle the dead back onto the path which we believed they were predestined for, speaking about things the dead were going to do or what they would want, were they still drawing breath. But the dead do not want anything.
It is difficult enough for a life to be sustained without disease or unnatural injury long enough for a third act; it is a darker and rarer magic still if a person’s life can be distilled into a story worth telling, if left unflavored by those who remember them. There is nothing dishonorable about that; merely an acknowledgement that life is a sequence of events upon which many will not or cannot imprint with meaning. And it is not a dishonest thing to say that some die with their shadows taller than their souls, the narrative of their life little more than a sigil scrawled on to a cavern wall in warning.
If life is the cloth from which a eulogy is to be cut and fitted around one’s memory, it is best to consider in what condition you leave those materials for those remaining in your stead. Is the cloth hidden away so deep that no one can find it, or a skein of fragments cross-stitched together so that others are forced to imagine a pattern? Is it undyed and blank from never bothering to imprint its fabric with worth? Is is burnt beyond recognition? Or was it left half-formed for others to take up the needle and sew into something for warmth in your absence, taking scraps from their own lives to complete?