Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Yesterday We All Died Laughing

Yesterday nine women--eight students and one instructor, all over the age of sixty--squeezed around an oval table in a pleasantly decorated room at the local center for senior citizens and took turns reading aloud to each other. It was the last class of our six-week session of Life Writing, and we were reading the homework that had been assigned at the end of the previous class: to write our own obituaries. Does that sound like fun?

You can't imagine how much fun it was. For one thing, we had snacks, brought from home to celebrate the completion of our writing course. We filled Halloween-themed paper plates with hummus and carrots, crackers and dip, caramel popcorn and fun-sized candy bars, then we chomped and chewed through eight recitations of death notices and the boiled-down biographies that accompanied them.

I think most, if not all, of us approached the assignment reluctantly, and, judging by the end results, we each approached it from a unique perspective. There were basic similarities, of course--names, dates, and lists of survivors--but there was so much more than that. The collection of readings ranged from poignant to humorous, from brief to expansive. There were burial instructions, last wishes, expressions of faith and love, and even some softly sung phrases from favorite funeral hymns. The experience we'd expected to be morbid turned out to be beautiful.

In between the readings, we talked. We talked about mortality, our own and that of loved ones, about special moments we'd personally experienced at funerals, about final gestures of love for the deceased. We spoke of the ridiculously high cost of publishing obituaries in the newspapers. We laughed about how squeamish our adult children are when it comes to discussing death and the decisions to be made in its aftermath. Somehow, in the years that have passed since we were their ages, we've begun to make peace with the inevitable. It was freeing to discuss end-of-life issues and ideas openly, to bat them around with no greater sentiment than if we were discussing plans for an upcoming ladies' luncheon.

The six-week Life Writing course that ended yesterday was the second session I've attended, the third for some, the first for others. Our instructor drives a long way to and from each class, but she keeps coming back, keeps urging us to dig deeper, write more, go into detail, tell our truths so that those who come after us can learn who we were and how we lived. And we do. We write about things that matter to us; in that way we get to know each other better and faster than we might if we were to meet under other circumstances. We write, we read, and along the way we build trust and friendship.

We're all different, the nine of us, and it's those differences that keep our stories fresh and interesting. What's most important about our stories, though, what makes us care about them and their writers, is that they remind us of the countless ways in which we're all the same.

Yesterday's class was reminiscent of the time just after a funeral's over, when family members and close friends gather at home, pull off their neckties or kick off their high-heeled shoes, eat comfort food from covered dishes delivered by thoughtful neighbors, and swap favorite anecdotes about the dear departed. They know there'll be plenty more crying in the days to come, but right at that moment it feels so darned good to laugh again.

11 comments:

  1. It sounds like a fun wrap up to your class Velvet!

    Re: High cost of publishing obituaries...I naively thought that it was the newspaper's responsibility to document deaths with all the "begats and begots" as a permanent record for future generations. I often wondered why some people have such a lengthy obit and others - people I knew had done much charity work or gone far in their career - would have such a short obit. When my sister passed this year, I was shocked to learn it was about money.

    My frugal mother has instructed me that hear obit should read {She} died. Funeral at _________, burial to follow.

    I do believe she would haunt me if I didn't do exactly as she asked!

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  2. I always have the sense that people in the funeral industry could whip off their kind-and-sympathetic masks at any moment and reveal vulture heads sticking out of stiff white collars and dark suits.

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  3. It was a fun afternoon, and the reports of our deaths were greatly exaggerated. Great follow-up, Linda. Your closing paragraph really represents the feeling of the occasion.

    I agree wholeheartedly that "we get to know each other better and faster than we might if we were to meet under other circumstances." You are so right that "we write, we read, and along the way we build trust and friendship."

    Looking forward to our next class session but in the meantime will be visiting Linda@VS.

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    1. "The reports of our deaths were greatly exaggerated." Hee-hee. It's always good to see you here, Nancy.

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    2. I just couldn't resist saying that, Linda!

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  4. Excellent summary of our class, Linda. Having to write my obit during Halloween week initially seemed to be a nasty trick from teacher Patt, but it turned into a sweet treat that will relieve my children and husband (who insists he will predecease me) of the task -- hopefully, far away in the future. I, too, am looking forward for my fourth semester of Life Writing classes in the spring!

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    1. Millie, since your husband is convinced he will predecease you, maybe you should go ahead and write his obit and get his pre-approval. Or, better yet, write just part of it. Then, if he ever does anything that really annoys you, you could whip it out and let him catch you working on it. (Am I evil or what?)

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  5. Good summary of our class. I called Dolly and read it to her. We both enjoyed the class and I am looking forward to the spring class.

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    1. Anonymous? Who dat? Mary maybe?

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  6. Sounds like a wonderful afternoon, but I don't want to read your obituary for years and years.

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    1. Thanks, Annette, but don't worry. To minimize any possible risk of influencing fate, I listed my age at death as 90. I figure I'll be tired, bored, and ready to go by then. (Please don't hold me to that, O Great Decider; I might have changed my mind by then.)

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