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“By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May God bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.”


— James Agee


A Death In The Family


• • •


Pull up another chair, please, to the great kitchen table in the sky, where, I am convinced, many of my people sit and important business is discussed and maybe even interventions (or lack thereof) are put to popular vote.


This imagined celestial table is for the ones who have gone before; they wait for us while we, down here, wait for them, for that grand reunion on an unknown tomorrow.


You’ll have to forgive me, but we buried another member of the extended clan this week, so I’m still in contemplative mode, having thought myself near to death on this topic called death. Not in the morbid sense but more in the marveling, grateful sense.


Would you mind some reflections after a funeral?


May God bless my people indeed, our people. May we all be so lucky to have people, to be enveloped in this crazy world by even a tiny tribe. When the hour of taking away comes, good tribe members will:


• Bake a cake or a pie. A lasagna or a big pot of spaghetti. Or head to the store for a prearranged tray and head right over. Though your house runneth over with food, that’s not the point. Now you have all the more reason to throw open your doors, to welcome all in to share your sorrow and your bread, along with your memories.


Is this more of a local custom than a national or global? Not sure but sure hope not. In the 25 years since I saw this play out for maybe the first hard-hitting time (when we buried my younger brother far too early), people have continued to amaze me in this way, not only with their thoughtfulness but their spot-on thought processes. For everyone who showed up with much-appreciated bagels and baked goods and croissants and casseroles, someone else arrived with a case of soda or water or a carton of paper plates and plastic utensils. Or just a couple of pizzas.


• Get on a plane or a train or inside an automobile, no matter how inconvenient, dropping whatever they are doing when the news hits. Because why would they not? Sometimes you just put aside and come.


For this funeral, a 91-year-old man took the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from NY to PA solo during rush hour and looked no worse for the wear. Another carload arrived from Cleveland, six hours on short notice no impediment. And the assorted other folks from various corners who set aside an hour or so to file into the funeral home were every bit as appreciated.


We write our names in a book of death at the front door, but these pages really compose a book of life, something to pull out years from now on a cold, rainy day when loneliness sets in and signatures might be almost as comforting as hands.


• Willingly “bear the pall,” so to speak. God bless the dignified men in sharp suits who flank a casket and bear its weight to a final resting place. Usually strong men without speaking parts, they nonetheless say so much. I asked one close to me if he’s been a pallbearer or a godfather more. Toss-up. But both such distinct edges-of-life honors.


What else? When the end comes, count on your people to attend to all kinds of other tasks: to see to it that your hair gets done and your songs get sung. To pick up your friends or pick out a flattering final outfit, or a fitting final bed …


Tribes. We can neither live nor die without them. And why should we? Hold yours just a little closer today.


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