The Earth’s breath swept through the stones as long interred guests howled in disapproval of our gathering. It was a late winter 8 A.M., everything floating in lifeless grey, nothing bragging about the joy of life except for a few bouquets of violet anemones that were propped up next to a sign that read, plainly, “Matthew Leonard Cole.” Leafless skeletal hands reached into the ashen cloud-cover, like some mischievous undertaker had come in the night and flipped all the trees upside down.
Roots above, blossoms below.
The priest, a stranger to us but not this town, stood stoically in his freshly dry-cleaned robes, performing his never ending duty with that bible like Sisyphus with that rock. A red silk bookmark hung from the pages of the holy text, tongue wagging in the winter wind, holding a place of reminder, of memory, of last rites.
Well practiced but unfamiliar, the priest stumbled through an exaltation of Matthew’s life: his myriad but inconsistent successes, his tragically short but intense relationships, the nothing and something and everything he left behind. He did the best he could, having received the scribbled pages of notes from friends and family only hours before, to make Matthew seem like a person who would be missed after this small crowd dispersed.
The priest read and read – those canon phrases buried in Pslam; valleys and walking and shadows and death – monotone to match the grey, somber to match the cold.
My mind wandered, drunk on loss and beer from the night before, and I had a hard time understanding the religion that filled my ears. His words seemed familiar, like I’d heard them before, like I knew their shape and structure, but it felt like I was listening to someone try to explain a complex idea in a language I didn’t know. Or at the very least couldn’t remember.
The few people who had shown I knew through Matt or Matt knew through me – a conclave of our combined social lives. Some had come far unexpectedly, others had come short, full well expecting. They hunched, coats like clerical robes covering sadness, the morning mist gathering on then rolling off waterproof fabric like tears. I counted nine. Nine to remember twenty seven. One for every three years.
Finally, the priest stopped communing and looked at me.
“I believe Katherine has a few words to say.”
I had hoped he’d forgotten, that the idea of this eulogy had slipped away in the midst of the verses, had been carried off by the holy spirit. I fumbled in my pocket for a square of white, my memories of Matt condensed into eight point five by eleven. I unfolded it carefully, reminding myself that he would be doing this for me were roles opposite; were I horizontal and he vertical.
I stared down at the crease in the sheet, one line a little longer than the other, meeting perfectly in the middle.
“Matt asked me to speak for him, but I’m worried that I can’t. I only knew him as a sister and a poor one at that. Many of you – his friends, cell-mates, fellow-trouble makers – might have known him better. But because I share blood, the responsibility falls to me to remember how he was and who he was, when he was.”
The Times New Roman on the paper blurred, deformed and refracted through the water in my eyes. I said I wouldn’t. Didn’t think I could. I folded the paper along the cross and put it away.
“I had prepared something, but it won’t do. It’s too sterile, too formal. Matt isn’t an anecdote, isn’t a punch line to some bad gallows humor. Well he wasn’t, at least.”
Several that had been staring down at the coffin looked up to me now.
“Death baffles me. What does it mean to go away? To disappear from the places you used to be? To leave a house, a car, a life that is full of your things but is empty of you? If our words still appear on paper, if our voices still echo in memory, do we ever really leave? I think Matt is still with me, still in the spaces around me, in all that air that we think is nothing, in the poems and photographs, still lingering like an eternal radio transmission.”
The wind threw a left hook, a massive gust that toppled the sign with Matt’s name, blew the purple blossoms across the graveyard’s tombstone teeth. A few errant strands of blond whipped across and stung my face, self-flagellation for a sister who’d in recent years misplaced her piety.
“And when we go, does our dignity flee? Does it run from this life, this planet, like a scared child in the face of a pillaging army? Or does it persist, angry that it has been dethroned by something as inevitable as death? The Egyptians buried their dead with gold and jewels and all those beautiful things that defined worth and value. I’d like to think we bury Matt today with all the love and spirit he brought to the world. I’d like to think we bury him beautifully, bury him with all kinds of otherworldly riches…
…but I wonder. Death equalizes and strips. The body decays even when encased in gold. Is it possible for a corpse to be regal? Is it possible to nobly rot?”