“Because I could not stop for death …”

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250px-Funeral_Procession_by_Ellis_Wilson

Death is never convenient, no matter how long anticipated or how stoically accepted.  I experienced this to some small degree as I boarded a red-eye flight last week, bound for Georgia and my grandfather’s funeral.  His body had been failing steadily over his last months, and the family had received frequent updates on his condition until the very end.  Nonetheless, when death finally came, it demanded recognition with its customary imperiousness.

Perhaps because of the interruption that death inevitably entails, there is something fitting about the Southern custom of pausing for funeral motorcades.  The neighbors of the bereaved participate at least for a brief moment in his experience. It is hard to imagine a courtesy of this sort in Boston or New York.  Granted, it might not happen on the interstates of Atlanta either (which is full of former Bostonians and New Yorkers anyway).  However, as we processed down the two-lane highways of Dearing, Georgia; where white, clapboard churches are as common as urban Starbucks, and every gas station doubles as a “feed and seed” or a “bait and tackle;” unfamiliar cars dutifully took their ease.  Most, even if they were headed in the opposite direction, pulled over onto the grassy shoulder in a gesture of extravagance, as if to remove even the appearance of routine continuance.  No doubt, some waited with less patience than others.  Surely some yielded out of social pressure rather than heart-felt reverence.  Nevertheless, the etiquette allowed me—and others, I suspect—to feel the full weight of Grandpa’s death. 

The mere cessation of business-as-usual silently argued for death’s finality.  For who can really believe in the seriousness of any event, so long as it passes unregistered in the demeanor of his neighbors?  As long as the band plays on, who can believe that the Titanic is really sinking?  Yet, as I coasted past the idle motorists, it seemed that the band had indeed stopped.  Grandpa’s death “thickened” within me.  I felt much as I imagine most Christians did a century ago, as they watched their neighbors close shop on Sunday—or even as some Catholics still do, when traffic yields once a year to their Corpus Christi procession.  The caesura suggested an inbreaking of life in its density; and, for a brief moment, the shades of the quotidian ceded right of way to the robust mysteries of life, death, and salvation.

Perhaps for this reason the Catholic Church has devised a calendar of feasts and fasts and has traditionally enforced their observance with strict “obligations.”  Unless Christians are nudged into a communal pause, the hope of salvation memorialized therein remains a wan abstraction.  And every Christian—indeed, every neighbor—who does not observe the pause, renders the event “thinner” even in private consciousness.  The social formation of the imagination was doubtlessly one of the great strengths of “Christendom.”

Ironically, the small courtesies of the South reveal a spiritual vision perhaps more communal and sacramental than that of regions reckoned more “Catholic”—at least by the numbers.  And, while the distinction of regions has faded significantly under the leveling influence of technology, there may still be some justice in Flannery O’Connor’s oft-cited observation: “While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”

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7 Responses to “Because I could not stop for death …”

  1. ragekj says:

    Great post; I really like your writing style. And combining the South, a sacramental world view, and Flannery O’Connor can’t go wrong in a post can’t go wrong.

  2. […] “Though we could not stop for genocide …” « Whosoever Desires […]

  3. Jim says:

    I enjoyed your reflection. Pausing as a funeral goes past is a coustom in Southwest Indiana also. My pauses in the future will be more spiritually profitable because of your post. May your grandfather have eternal rest. Your thoughts on Catholic practices of embeding the spiritual realities in a cycle of feast days is timely with the feast of the Assumption tomorrow. Again, your post will make it a more profitable pause. Thanks!

  4. Gabriel Austin says:

    I am never quite certain where is the virtue in asserting or highlighting such comparisons [“comparisons are odious” said grandma] as what Southerners do that Yankees do not.

    In the North, funeral processions pass through traffic lights and intercessions and stop signs quite regularly. And people are often seen to cross themselves at the passing.

    Grandma also said “take your arms from around your own neck”.

  5. Elizabeth M says:

    There is something different about the Southern “pause” for a funeral procession. I’m a life-long Northerner, but my college roommate was from Atlanta. I went to her mother’s funeral. Her mother had been active in her church and the children’s parish school and had many friends — not to mention her children’s friends and their families. It was a very, very long funeral procession and the degree to which everyone stopped and pulled over when we passed — on every side street, on every main street from the Cathedral. It was very different than what I’d seen in the North with processions going through stop signs and traffic lights. Somehow (and I can’t capture how it felt this way) it was more clearly a sign of respect for the dead and mourning as I experienced it in the South and less about traffic courtesy for a line of cars who need to stay together.

  6. Glenn J. Bergeron II says:

    Excellent post, Aaron . . . very close to home . . .

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