I return to the news that a family friend—an intimate fixture—has been brutally murdered. An obituary meets me on my first night home, and my mother attempts to narrate the murder again and again, only for me to reply that I must be seated to hear this news properly. The details are simple, the account short, the background and context elusive, the “why” unanswerable.” Returns often feel like collections of obituaries as one seeks news of the no-longer-here one assumed would be permanent intimate fixtures. Returns are always forms of accounting, practices of counting who is not here, who is newly here, of learning how to ask after people, delicate dances one negotiates.
One learns to ask, “how is . . .”, carefully, haltingly.
An early encounter with funerals—my grandfather’s at seven, my father’s at fourteen—leaves me incapable of handling death and its rituals: the gathering to offer sympathy, the funeral service, the funeral. And my escape to the U.S. meant that it was been possible to evade these practices of intimacy, requirements of sociality.
I return as friends’ parents die, as relatives die, as demands for mutual obligation increase, still unable to attend these rituals. Still unable to know what one says. Still unable to show up.
Over the years, my mother has offered information about deaths and funerals with, “the choir sang beautifully.” This comment is not restricted to those occasions. Rather, it’s central to how she engages religion and ritual: “the choir sang beautifully.”
I am yet to understand this repetition, to understand what it is saying, what it means, how it functions. I know, now, that it is more than what I have been hearing. As I listen to it, I now hear
respect was paid
love was shown
care was enacted
beauty is possible
This is not “beauty is possible in the face of tragedy,” at least I don’t think so. Instead, it’s about how one engages with the collective-making work of deaths and funerals, about the necessary affirmations one seeks in attending funeral services.
It is also about the inexpressible.
How does one talk about loss? What is the language of mourning? What memories does one want to have of how a life has been lived? How does one want to be haunted?
To figure haunting as beautiful singing is to create a final memory, a fitting memory, a necessary memory. To speak of singing rather than tears is not to avoid tears, but to register the making of funeral rites.
I write this from my mother’s dining room, next to the living room where, more than twenty years later, I still hear echoes of voices raised to mourn my grandfather and my father. What remains is less a particular song or tune; I long-ago forgot the rote funeral sermons, the obligatory eulogies, the performances of grief (though never my aunt’s cry-red eyes).
Instead, I remember voices raised in song.
And I hold on to the memory of the friend who died as a beautiful song. For what joy she brought to our collective lives.