A Loss for Words from The Last Word (Coach House Books, 2017)
by Julia Cooper
Here we are in the pews of a bright, white-walled church in the opening minutes of director Richard Curtis’s beloved 2003 Christmas comedy Love Actually. An always-stoic Liam Neeson – playing the widower Daniel – begins to eulogize his late wife. With his signature lilting Irish tongue, Neeson mimics the heavy shoulders of a mourner, beaming a strained smile toward the funeral audience, hoping to find a comrade in the black-clad crowd as he performs the lonely work of eulogizing (luckily, Emma Thompson is there to smile back). He tells us that he and his wife, Joanna, had plenty of time to plan this service, signalling a prolonged illness that allowed for the couple to perform the grim work of event-planning while she slowly died. In advance of her death, Joanna determined that her eulogy would serve as a way of saying goodbye to her family and friends, and she chose to do this not through the commemorative words of her husband who would survive her, but rather, as Daniel puts it, ‘ever so coolly, through the immortal genius of the Bay City Rollers.’ Cue the upbeat harmonies of ‘Bye Bye Baby,’ playing over speakers and bouncing off the hallowed church walls, cue the pallbearers, cue the mix of knowing smiles and uncomfortable laughs from the funeral audience. A slide show plays behind the pulpit with photos of Joanna (played by an uncredited Rebecca Frayn) projected onto a white screen, a series of still images underscoring the spectral presence of the dead and making it seem almost as though she is presiding over her funeral from the beyond.
What’s striking about this eulogy is not so much its musical component – though it is a discordant choice considering the song’s subject is infidelity, containing – given the context – the regretful lines ‘I could love you but why begin it/’Cause there ain’t any future in it.’ What’s striking is the fact of the dead woman’s anticipation of her eulogy and her orchestration of it. Everyone has time to prepare for his or her death in a general way, but not everyone has time to prepare for an imminent death – and what a bleak luxury that must be, to orchestrate one’s own service. The plans that one hopes to have posthumously implemented (be it a musical eulogy or the redistribution of one’s wealth) are made with a decisiveness that the decider has no way of enforcing. To try to plan your own eulogy is to try to arc time in your favour, to have things go your way just a little longer, even after your time has run out. The dead will not be there to see if her wishes get carried out or not, and yet she nonetheless makes requests for a future she will never see.
What’s even more remarkable about Joanna’s funeral plans is her preference to be eulogized through a popular song instead of from the lips of her beloved. Why leave the last words to be publicly spoken of you to a middling band from the 1970s? As much-loved as the song may be (or may have been, back in the day), how could it possibly hold more sentiment than words from your life partner, spoken in the wake of his losing you? Playing a pop song strikes me as a cagey move, buffering the fraught emotions of the mourners with commercial, mass-produced feeling. To prefer the sounds of ‘Bye Bye Baby’ over the words spoken by a lover is to attempt to mediate your death through cliched lyrics rather than intimatee experience. This mediation is a way of keeping the emotional intensity of loss at bay – to hold the pain of grief at arm’s length and collapse it into a recognizable, upbeat narrative. In Love Actually, everyone in the audience looks dour because they have assembled to be sad. Yet, even at a funeral, where sadness is supposed to be socially permitted (the one release valve we have left!), even here a song is played to prompt the grievers to not be too sad.
Why displace the eulogy with a classic hit? Playing a pop song instead of listening to a personalized address could serve a few functions. It certainly adds some levity for the mourners – break the tension, lighten the mood. But why must Joanna’s death be bubbly? Call it personal preference, but I want people to weep over my dead body when my time comes, not dance. Joanna wants to be commemorated lightheartedly, and perhaps to avoid having her illness define the terms of the proceedings.
My mom requested a similar elision, though thankfully without the cloyingly chipper soundtrack. She was adamant that her obituary not mention the cancer that killed her gradually over the course of two years and two days. Her illness had taken up so much space at the end of her life, not to mention swindling her out of a good three decades, give or take, and she didn’t want the disease to overshadow or tinge the narrative of her life. I understood her point of view at the time, but I wish that she hadn’t felt that worry. I wish she could have known that despite its very real physical consequences, cancer didn’t diminish her. Cancer certainly didn’t undo the story of her life, it just cut the story too short.
Neeson introducing his fictional wife’s snappy musical eulogy also serves a formal function for the spectators of Love Actually. Closing a funeral scene with a pop hit keeps the pacing of the film relatively upbeat – ‘Bye Bye Baby’ concludes the moment of mourning with a wink and a nod that is in keeping with the film’s flirty pace. Swiftly wrapping up the sombre funeral scene to the tune of the Bay City Rollers prevents this feel-good holiday movie from getting mired in the absolute ickiness of death. Plus, it saves the writers from needing to come up with meaningful words for a dispensable character. Eulogies are hard to write, even for people who don’t exist.
Still, a funeral is not a situation that needs comedic diffusing – its tension is warranted, its lack of vim understandable. If the eulogy isn’t the time and place to think about and articulate the importance of a life – however sad that task may be – then when? Never doesn’t seem like a good enough answer. In another of Curtis’s screenplays, though in this instance directed by Mike Newell, we see a character bristling at the difficulty of finding his own words to eulogize the dead. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, we watch as John Hannah, playing Matthew, eulogizes his partner, Gareth. It’s not until the funeral scene that their relationship as lovers becomes clear to the audience. Matthew begins eulogizing by speaking of Gareth’s joyfulness – he is the film’s bon vivant, in blindingly colourful vests and a devilish grin – and considering how the mourners will collectively remember him. But when it is time for Matthew to speak of his private loss, it is there that he runs ‘out of words.’ Instead, he pleads: ‘Perhaps you’ll forgive me if I turn from my own feelings to the words of another splendid bugger: W. H. Auden. This is actually what I want to say.’ Finding it easier to speak of Gareth in terms of a collective loss, Matthew is unable to muster the strength to speak to the intimacy of his own bereavement. Auden’s poem ‘Funeral Blues’ is heartbreaking, there is no doubt, and it avoids the triteness of some other thematically related poems because it doesn’t shirk grief ’s immensity:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead.' Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Auden crafts the poem so that it spirals outward from the minutiae of domestic life to the wider world beyond – both of which are irrevocably changed, and worse off, now that ‘He is Dead.’ There is something so charming in the poet’s petulance. His series of impossible commands are barely veiled confessions of his utter helplessness in the face of loss, and in each line and each hyperbole you can feel the vibration of his frustrated grief like twanging chords. Time itself is now useless to Auden. The tides are unnecessary, as is the moon that guides them. The laws of nature are moot to the griever, who feels life is unnatural without his lover. ‘Funeral Blues’ foregrounds the speaker’s wish for the whole universe to weep for this one death and the heft of grief he feels. The dead was once the still point of the turning world for Auden, so the world no longer needs to turn. The cosmos serves no purpose anymore, and the poet feels as though all of life’s crackle has fizzled with the extinguishing of this one life. Auden’s exaggerations function as a salve. The poem’s expansive images are there to try to match the simultaneous immensity and emptiness of feeling that comes with grief.
Yet, the choice of Matthew’s prefacing words before reciting the poem is telling. Matthew asks to be forgiven for turning from his ‘own feelings to the words of another.’ This pivot from private feeling to a publicly shared text brings into relief the character’s preference to displace his complicated and as yet unprocessed feelings of grief to the comforting coherence of Auden’s four stanzas. Even though Matthew is at the church’s pulpit to eulogize the person with whom he has built a life, he chooses to let the words of another do the talking.
Like ‘Bye Bye Baby’ in Love Actually, the incantation of ‘Funeral Blues’ also serves a pedestrian function. Auden’s poem holds some poetic purchase and it functions just as well, if not better than, an original eulogy written specifically for the scene that might risk sounding too sappy or too simple. As Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral make clear, the way to make the eulogy more enthralling is to draw on songs and lines that already have some credibility and popularity behind them (and for the love of pacing, keep these sad scenes short! There’s a reason it’s not Four Funerals and a Wedding).
When writer Norman Mailer published his own eulogy in a 1979 issue of Boston, twenty-eight years before he actually died, he was unabashedly trying to make death and the circumstances surrounding it entertaining. Mailer took it upon himself to do the work of eulogizing in advance of his death and seemed to delight in the task. ‘Norman Mailer passed away yesterday after celebrating his fifteenth divorce and sixteenth wedding,’ he writes, in the third person. Mailer continues commemorating himself in a mode that is part eulogy, part obituary, but mostly tongue-in-cheek self-mockery: ‘At the author’s bedside were eleven of his fifteen ex-wives, twenty-two of his twenty-four children, and five of his seven grandchildren, of whom four are older than six of their uncles and aunts.’ As you can see, Mailer chose to make the subject of his own eulogy not his literary achievements but the splintered branches of his immediate family tree, which in turn highlights for the reader the author’s strapping virility. Mailer might be ‘dead’ but his progeny live on, and so he casts male concupiscence as an eternal truth that stretches infinitely forward. The author’s truest legacy is not his Pulitzer but the spawn that will continue to breathe in the oxygen he has at last, finally breathed out. Though hyperbolic, Mailer’s piece crystallizes the arithmetic that underpins the planning that one does for death.
‘At present, interest revolves around the estate,’ continues Mailer.
Noting that Executors have warned that Mailer, although earning an average income of one and a half million dollars a year, has had to meet an annual overhead of two million, three hundred thousand, of which two million, two hundred and fifty thousand went in child support, alimony, and back irs payments. It is estimated that his liabilities outweigh his assets by eight million, six hundred thousand.
This distribution of his assets across ex-wives is what Mailer’s self-imagined eulogy boils down to. The numbers: the number of his weddings and divorces, the number of his progeny, the number of his capital gains and debts, his back payments to the irs. Basic math.
What Mailer’s self-eulogizing and Love Actually’s Bay City Rollers eulogy share is an appreciation of the notion that the dead can shape the acts of commemoration that will follow on the heels of their death. These examples crystallize a wish to plan one’s own funeral from the other side, when, by definition, commemoration is done by anyone other than us. Commemoration is literally ‘a calling to remembrance, or preserving in memory, by some solemn observance, public celebration.’ It’s right there in the pfe. What commemoration is not is a posthumous act of curation, no matter how much we desire to continue to shape our little corners of the world. To wit, we want immortality where there is none.
We want to exceed the limits of mortality because what a nuisance those limits are to us, as future-oriented animals. We thirst for a lastingness we can’t have; we want influence where it has already perished; we want the future with us in it, someway, somehow. To plan your own funeral is narcissistic, but at that point, no one is going to call you on it.
Narcissism gets a bad name when, really, one’s own death should be an important focal point of interest in our lives. When someone finds herself knowingly close to death, shouldn’t she be allowed some narcissistic depths in which to wallow? Similarly, the person close to the dying or to the recently dead should be given a wide berth in which to dwell, sulk, mourn, stagnate, and crumple. Death is the time for self indulgence. In a death-denying culture, it is little wonder that being introspective, even when reckoning with death, is deemed selfish and narcissistic. With this in mind, we might consider the fact that socially sanctioned permission to wallow may never come, and insisting on grief and its longevity is an uncomfortable, vital, and caring task.
There is a moment at the end of David Foster Wallace’s ‘Good Old Neon’ that speaks to this primal desire to shape and manage how others see us even after we’ve died. This final narcissistic wish isn’t a heinous character trait; it is, as the story reveals to us, simply a desire to be loved – and who can be faulted for that? ‘Good Old Neon’ is the story of Neal, a man so consumed by the idea that he is a fraud – and consequently incapable of having an authentic relationship with anyone – that he commits suicide. The story is told from the perspective of this already-dead protagonist, who recounts the story of his life to the reader, which is to say the events that led up to his painful end. Near the close of the narrative, Neal, who is by this point low-key-basking in the glow of death and feeling relatively sanguine about his fraudulence, informs us:
you think it makes you a fraud, the tiny fraction anyone else ever sees? Of course you're a fraud, of course what people see is never you. And of course you know this, and of course you try to manage what part they see if you know it's only a part. Who wouldn't? It's called free will, Sherlock.
We are constantly trying to manage how we are perceived by other people. We ingratiate ourselves, or we are standoffish, but both are about managing how we appear in the world and in the eyes of others. There should be some leeway for the grief-stricken. If, in rising to the daunting task of delivering a eulogy, they choose to rely on ‘the words of another’ as Matthew does in Four Weddings and a Funeral, we should cut them some slack. Conceding to convention and outsourcing sentiment doesn’t make anyone a ‘fraud.’ Let’s be tender.
But in the same breath we should also acknowledge that this habitual reliance on received ideas happens because raw and unprocessed emotion is unwelcome. To speak freely, to break down, to become illegible is to breach the etiquette of the contemporary eulogy. Consciously or not, this unspoken etiquette has come to govern how we speak about our loss in public. The need to be appropriate has come to outweigh the need to process. While there is no pure, authentic form of the eulogy to return to, our present over-reliance on cliché is an invitation to question the genre of the eulogy and the cultural conversation that largely sidesteps the topic of grief. Maybe by taking the extra time to distill emotion and to find our own words we can begin to peel away some of the especially callused cliches that have hardened around public grief.
Returning to the act of contemplation of one’s own death, it seems to me that the desire to finesse the final words of one’s life also veers toward the denial of death’s inevitability. Especially in the instance of Mailer’s mock eulogy, there is a sense that making light of one’s own death is – as any student taking Intro to Psych would tell you – a coping mechanism. This satirical wordplay of a eulogy helps Mailer, and maybe his reader, conceive of the abyss in slightly less terrifying terms. Once again, perhaps this can be forgiven. But effacing the emotional and existential fact of one’s death might also be an unconscious response to the demand – prevalent in our society and on display in our popular culture – to deny death. The constant call to affirm life makes the situation and eventual reality of death a kind of embarrassment, a bad word: a topic we can only talk about with some parodic panache or in recycled platitudes.
Mailer’s eulogy is a satirical assembly of crude arithmetic, but in its crudeness returns us to the divisions of property and inheritance that preoccupies the strategic planning we do for our own death. We are advised to plan for death mostly as a matter of accounting. One is encouraged to prepare one’s last will and testament well ahead of time, to proactively arrange for the divvying up of property and the dispersal of objects. Consequently, property becomes the crucible of family dynamics, and, more often than not, it is where feelings of pain and grief ’s disorienting power get played out. Instead of reflecting on who will deliver our last words, time and money is spent on figuring out who will get our stuff. The loose ends of an estate, of capital distribution, become the focal point around a death in the days that follow it instead of a confrontation with loss.
One’s death then becomes a matter of calculation: what was that life worth? How does it break down in terms of addition, subtraction, division? Inheritance is about keeping whatever wealth we may have accumulated in a lifetime in the family. That emphasis on wealth – especially in the form of property – and inheritance foregrounds the role of the state in our death. Like marriage, which sanctifies our sex lives and intimate desires before government, inheritance is a way of squaring our small lives in relation to that same government, making our individual ends a matter of legal rather than emotional interest. We can see how the redistribution of money is valued as an important matter to be attended to after a death, and also the subtle ways in which grief and mourning are deemed useless, auxiliary to public life.
When I returned to my small and nosy liberal arts college at the age of nineteen, after my mom died, the secretary told me she could sympathize: ‘It’s so much paperwork!’ she lamented. I hated this woman for saying something so crass, so stupid. I hated her for not comforting me with better words than these, but I also hated her for being right. The overwhelming logistics of funeral planning and of dispersing the material traces of a life is exhausting. It also becomes the focus in the weeks proceeding death, the tangible and productive work that can be done. This work has a clear timeline, and it is a project that can clearly and effectively be managed, which makes it unlike the endless work of grieving.
In so many ways, death emphasizes over and over the fact that time doesn’t work the way we think it ought to. We plan for things beyond our death as though that’s a reasonable thing to do, and we impose linear plans onto its chaos (be it through a cued-up pop song or last-minute codicils). Trying to bring order to our abrupt end is futile, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone from trying all the same. Our careful calculations and plans, be they motivated by fear, or maybe egoism, can in no way outsmart, circumvent, or master the fact of death.
Julia Cooper has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Hazlitt magazine, among others. Based in Toronto, Ontario, she recently completed a PhD in English Literature at the University of Toronto.
from The Last Word, Coach House Books, 2017, used with permission from the press.