Msnowe's Blog

funeral fiction

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on April 28, 2009

On the fiction of funerals, and the reality of fiction.

m.snowe thinks she’s been reading too many books. Or something.

m.snowe had the rather dubious task of attending the wake and funeral of a loved-one in the past few days. Anyone who spends all four hours at the wake and an entire day at the mass, burial and assorted family functions will tell you that the points of grief ebb and are often punctuated with times that are completely incongruous with the actual events taking place. And this is a good thing–we can’t be crying the entire time. But in those moments of introspection separate from mourning, m.snowe got to thinking about funerals in general. And the overarching sentiment she came to terms with was this: Bogus.

Why so bogus? First, the misrepresentation. m.snowe has an irrational fear of not being understood, or somehow being misinterpreted to ill effect (solipsistic, yes, but true). While this may be a personal fear projected onto her view of the scene, m.snowe couldn’t help but think that most people (unless ridiculously horrible human beings) would like to be presented accurately as themselves, and remembered as themselves. Nothing annoys this blogger more than the phrase “so-and-so would’ve wanted it that way,” and the like. No, so-and-so may not have, and you just have to accept that you’ll probably never know what they wanted. Many people have a fear of the indeterminate, and perhaps that’s why funerals are so necessary–they solidify things into a compact, two-day affair, where the family and friends gather around and decide that this was all worth it.

But m.snowe could not reduce a life down to the five french memory boards that held pictures from eight decades on them. And when she heard the priest say something about the departed’s personality that she knew to be false, she couldn’t help but cringe–despite the priest’s valiant efforts to laud a man or his life, isn’t it better to truthfully understand a man than hear reassuring pleasantries? It felt like the contrite narratives of check-out line mass-market fiction–written to a formula with slightly different characters. Why do all the stories have to be the same, just rejiggered to (hopefully) fit the person being mourned? There is no way to make sense of the experience of a life into a ritual of two day’s time–yet we try to, and fail beautifully. There is no such thing as closure. There is no such thing as a meaningful exit. Our book ends are not matching, nor do they hold steady.

What does this have to do with fiction? Well, m.snowe was often schooled that a writer’s work is never really done, and the only way to know for sure that it is, is with their death (comments on death being an “excellent career move” via book sales aside). This may or may not be accurate, but the actual book itself–the novel, or the short story, or the play or poem–once it is bound or published, once it has entered the reader’s head, it has become a perfect little life, independent of its writer and the question of their mortality. Like Aristotle said, the piece of writing has a beginning, a middle, and an end, no matter how it tries to forgo convention. It is at once a living work, and a dead one that is able to define itself perfectly with no ritual, incense or false memories. There is no flux, although the interpretations may change and the original meaning of the author may have slipped away. Fiction is more real, and surely less temporal than we are. Of course there are exceptions to the rules, but m.snowe is hard pressed to relay them…

Also, it can’t be a coincidence that so many of us are obsessed with writing, and recording, and documenting, and creating these works of fiction. Because although no work can encapsulate us, our writings have the ability to become some unchanging fermament–a sunny day we can choose to make our own, and always revisit, with no fear of misrepresentation or miscalculation. Fiction is our best eulogy.

2 Responses

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  1. Fiction Advocate said, on April 28, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    Word. It’s not possible to build a complete, accurate monument to a human life out of a story (or out of anything else, but a story is our best hope). But if we acknowledge that all our stories are fictions, then we can understand them as tributes to particular moments, as explained by biased storytellers. And that’s as whole and truthful as it gets.

  2. msnowe said, on April 28, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    “…tributes to particular moments, as explained by biased storytellers”
    Good point–sometimes people forget that every piece of writing has a biased author and authority is always in question(DFW makes some good points about this in his essay on dictionaries and modern usage guides). Non-referential work cannot exist (unless you believe in divine inspiration, circa the bible), but the written word gets at something that even shared, real experience can’t seem to do…

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