A Eulogy For Those Who Are Still Alive
This essay is part of a special series of content produced in conjunction with the live reading series Write Club in San Francisco. Writers are given opposing ideas to write on — in our case, different sets of homonyms (like “Urn” and “Earn”) — and seven minutes to prove their wordsmithing glory (tagline: “literature as bloodsport”). All prize money goes to charity.
Special thanks to curator and host Maggie Tokuda-Hall, who created an entire evening of female writers. Together we raised $1,000 (The Est. matched door donations) to be distributed among Homeless to Higher Ed and Girls, Inc.
I have a secret. I’m writing eulogies for all the people I love, who are still alive.
I think it’s time we admitted these speeches are not for the dead, but for the living. For the rest of us still dragging air into our lungs. Eulogies are the spackle of our sorrow — we jam a person-sized hole with the wet muck of our own memories and tell ourselves this is to honor them, but it is a poultice for us. The eulogy — the stories we tell of one small, incandescent life — are a talisman against the madness of our loss.
But. But even as I say — stop this cowardice! Tell your people — your tribe, your mother, the only teacher your ever had that made you feel smart or heard, what they mean to you. Tell them because they don’t know! Even as I say it’s not fair to love someone the most fiercely — to sing their song like a bard — once they’re gone and will never hear one note . . .
Even as I say that, I say that we are also necromancers in our eulogies. We can conjure the dead with our stories. When we die, we are nothing but a compilation of other people’s memories. Our lives become a best-hits album produced by those we’ve left behind.
Eulogies make us brave. We bring our noses so close to the grave we can feel a cold gust of air against our cheeks, but we turn back to the fire, back to the storytelling. We back away from the fact that we will be reduced to char.
The temperature of a cremation oven is 1400–1800 degrees Fahrenheit.
It takes about 2 to 2 1/2 hours to reduce the average human body to charred bones.
The remains are mostly ash except for the most tenacious bone fragments — the remaining body bits are gathered up and run through a Cremulator — essentially a high-powered blender. This creates a uniform, powder-like texture.
A human body yields three to nine pounds of ashes.
By the time I was in college, there were three urns — my grandmother, my uncle Rusty, and our beloved dog Brownie. Their presence was at once startling — they seemed to move of their own accord, sometimes cropping up in our armoire with the other dishware, sometimes tucked into the back of my father’s closet — but they were also vaguely reassuring. I think I liked their physical presence. I think I imagined tiny versions of my family — both human and canine — inside their trans-corporeal vessels. I felt as though we were the gatekeepers to the Other side. I had been raised to believe that there was not a heaven, but that, “reality was subjective,” ghosts were a given, and it was simply good juju to treat these ashes as a conduit to what was possible . . . they were a palpable reminder of what was beyond our understanding. Which was just about everything. Certainly death.
But among a family of devoted storytellers, these urns were also a reminder that my day was coming. I would be asked to do these lives justice. To tell the right story.
My father is chortling in the cold autumn air. He is wearing corduroys and thick red plaid and a navy blue beret. I am 4. I’m in a wheelbarrow full of leaves and the fear that something wet and crawling is going to creep into my nose is mixed with my own joy at the tinny ring of the wheelbarrow against the half-frozen roots of tree. He smells like damp wool and he’s singing, Ka Ka Ka Katiieeeee, over the stench of rain and dirt. This is the safest I will ever feel.
Modern cremator fuels include oil, natural has, propane, and sometimes coal gas.
Human ashes are comprised of dry calcium phosphates and traces of other minerals, like salts of sodium and potassium.
During the cremation process, the organs and other soft tissues are vaporized and oxidized; any gases released are discharged through the exhaust system.
I am 13. I have gotten my period, but I have no breasts, and I weigh about 90 pounds. I am equal parts knees and elbows, buck teeth, and tangled hair. I am leaving the orthodontist’s office. I am working my mouth over my new braces like a horse at the bit. My mother is sitting in the tiny waiting room. I smile and her face twists with such intense pity I want to hide it. I’m sorry I’m ugly, I think. I know you know I’m ugly and I’m weird and I can’t help it.
But before I can say a word, she has rearranged her mouth into an enormous smile and she is taking my face between her slender hands and telling me, “Oh my lamby, it’s not so bad!” And I love her for not lying. Because it is bad, but not so bad. She is my harbor.
So I am starting to tell these stories. I am trying to be less greedy with my love. The ashes are just ashes, they cannot listen. I am even writing my own eulogy.
It will say I’m scared of the dark, that I smell like onion soup and that is a surely a sign of my virility, of my life force. It will say I can be very brave, but I will never answer an unknown call — that is way too scary — and I try to never poop alone, as the process makes me feel too lonely. It will say I can make myself come so hard I should win a masturbation award. It will say I love sparkles like a crow, that I have tried to make myself as big and loud and laughing as possible, that I am a savant with lyrics, that I typically cry once a day over something, because life feels so hard and so easy. Too long and too short. It will say I love animals, but eat steak like a doberman, and I’ve become very disassociated from myself that way, and that’s disconcerting.
It will say I’ve tried to fight the good fight and I’ve been a good friend. That there is nothing on earth I like more than sitting shoulder to shoulder in the back seat of a car and looking out the window beside you.
But you’re right. That’s a list. That is not my story and I’m not sure I can tell it.
I wonder who will, and if I’ll ever hear it.
Lead Image by Katie Tandy