The limbic symphony for my 94 year old father’s death began Sunday night July 20th at 10:15 with whispers around his bedside. Then my choked calls to siblings and children raised sound of his death. Just one hard thing to say for now, and say it many times. Pass it on, the drumbeat that stops the other music.
We know how this will go. We know everyone else knows how it will go. In every village, in every tribe, deaths rule by ritual. Our rituals for a great grandfather play out differently from our rituals for the untimely child, but during that week or two in the lives of the bereaved, there’s one music, one sound to listen for, one note to strike. The thrum of daily life retreats deep into the background. For us there’s nothing to do but yield to this music.
The first urge is to come together. Who’s in the orchestra of this man’s life? Who needs to know, wants to come, wants to say, wants to do what? Soon our tuning into this network sharpens, tracking whom we’ve talked with, whom we’ve missed, who said what. People come forth to be counted with their calls, their email notes, their voice messages, their hallway talk–“so sorry about your Dad”—their sympathy cards and tearful hugs. Each voice is a pluck on the heartstrings, each tuned to this grief song. Our emotional brains, our collective limbic systems resonate into our makeshift symphony.
All this happens without a conductor. We know the rituals. The undertaker, the pathologist, the priest, the florist, the caterer—they show up and play their roles. Who knows how many people will come to a funeral? We divvy up the tasks among the inner family, stumble through our jobs, make the ceremonies go.
Many come, some from long distances, some from long absences, and many stay through the funeral day and into the night. The energy is death-defying. Some linger in his front hall well after bedtime. He was the last to go of his generation in our extended family, and after him the house will go, its 57 years of contents scattered like seed.
The number and depth of attachments packed into that funeral weekend was irresistible, invigorating, exhausting. And also wonderfully ordinary. Two days after his funeral I attended the funeral of a dear and lifelong friend, Joe Levinson, also a 94 year old physician who, like my father, had spent his career in this town. His funeral was equally irresistible and ordinary.
We’re made to do this, in every village, in every tribe. Death tunes us up, draws us into a symphony, a brief and often rough symphony. And then we return to the other musics we live by.