COLUMN SIX: Memento Mori

Special to the VOICE

It’s not that I’m afraid of death, wrote Woody Allen, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

Inevitably, as I age, my attendance at celebrations of life is required more often than before. I can now recite Psalm 23 from memory.

I recently attended a memorial service for the aunt of my oldest friend and thoroughly enjoyed it. You’re not supposed to enjoy these occasions, but Aunt Ellie was a month short of reaching her century, and from all accounts she lived a full and happy life. When death finally came, she was already sedated and so was unaware of it.

She wasn’t there when it happened, as Woody Allen hoped to be.

Singing songs of praise and listening to my friend’s heart-warming, amusing eulogy, helped to make the event memorable indeed. It was a coming together of very different people, many of whom had never met before and would likely not meet again, but all were to some degree connected with the deceased.

And then something unexpected happened during the drive from the service in Niagara Falls to the cemetery in Pelham. Actually it happened all the way along the route. Oncoming drivers, seeing the hearse and the limos and other cars with lights flashing, pulled over and waited until we passed. Some flicked their lights in acknowledgement. One gentleman actually got out and stood by his car.

I had forgotten that people do this, and it gladdened my heart to see it. Anyone not aware of the practice duly followed the lead of those who were.

From everything I had heard about Aunt Ellie, a woman who spent her life putting others before herself, it was fitting to see her honoured like this on her final journey.

It seems, however, that the tradition of paying homage to a passing cortege might itself be dying. A recent article in MacLeans revealed that the practice is now considered dangerous in congested city traffic and on busy highways. People are in too much of a hurry and too preoccupied with their own lives to pause for a funeral procession. Many are unaware of the protocol. A veteran funeral director from Winnipeg remarked that he’s had drivers shake their fists at him because they were inconvenienced by the procession.

And with GPS now, people can make their own way to the cemetery without having to follow a leader.

Find your own road, the ad says.

But even with GPS it’s possible to lose our way.

Having grown up as part of a generation taught to defer to those who merited our respect because of age or position of authority, I still do it, reflexively. And I don’t mind at all. If nothing else, respecting others keeps a check on our own sense of entitlement.

Like the four-way stop, where following protocol and giving way prevents nasty collisions.

Deferring to others does something else as well. It helps to define our sense of community, and gives us a feeling of well-being. Quite different from feeling smug or righteous. The opposite, in fact.

And so I loved that on the road to Pelham a woman who had lived a hundred years minus a month was accorded a gesture of respect by a long line of complete strangers, who weren’t in too much of a hurry to pull over and acknowledge her passing.

I remembered a moment from Tom Stoppard’s play, Jumpers. A slightly absurd professor of philosophy reflects on how life can surprise us with insignificant encounters that we remember forever.

When we are ambushed by some quite trivial moment—say the exchange of signals between two long-distance lorry-drivers in the black sleet of a god-awful night on the old A1—then, in that dip-flash, dip-flash of headlights in the rain that seems to affirm some common ground that is not animal and not long-distance lorry-driving.

In the end, isn’t this what lends society its adhesive? A spontaneous tip of the hat that gives back nothing except the knowledge that we did it?

A funeral more solemn than Aunt Ellie’s occurred in Halifax recently. Seven young children burned to death in a house fire that left their father in intensive care with life-threatening burns and their mother on her own. They were a family of Syrian refugees who had lived in Canada for only a short time. And yet the funeral was attended by two thousand people who either hardly knew them or didn’t know them at all.

This was something more than a dip-flash of headlights in the black sleet of a godawful night. Many had come from out of province to support the mother and the community who had sponsored her family’s move to Canada. These people put their own lives on hold for one day and gained nothing from it except the knowledge that they were doing it. But the solace of community they gave that wretched mother might yet make all the difference.

In the same week, by contrast, Peel Region’s 911 dispatchers received 400 complaint calls from people inconvenienced by a late-night amber alert on the disappearance of 11-year-old Riya Rajkumar. Police found the girl as a direct result of the alert, only the second issued since the system kicked in last April. Social media was soon abuzz with complaints about the alarm, along with howls of disgust at the complainers.

The girl was found dead, a victim of her own father’s demented rage, but that detail almost got lost in the noise.

Someone once said that no one ever died wishing they’d spent more of their time on business, and I’ve yet to hear a eulogy that remembered the deceased for their titles, salary, directorial positions or material possessions. A eulogy like that would only make you wonder where it all got them in the end.

We tend to remember people for those they touched during their lives, the joy they imparted, the example they set, and the love they shared.

Everything else goes into the slush pile.

Which brought to mind another thought as I watched the drivers pull over to the side when they saw Aunt Ellie coming towards them.

What are we in a hurry for anyway? Don’t all roads end up in the same place?

And isn’t that reason enough to pull over for a moment and reflect?

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