Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Elephants and Small Town Funerals

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, April 3, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

Many, many years ago, when my father was a funeral director with his own business in Trenton, Ontario, two men and a young boy were killed in a plane crash. It was a father and son, and the father’s brother, in a small, personal aircraft. The pilot didn’t ruffle the surface of the lake before taking off and they crashed in front of their family cottage. 
The father owned one of our town’s car dealerships; the uncle was in the armed forces; and the boy was 12 and a really good kid.
Visitation lasted for hours past the regular times, the line-up streaming out of the funeral home and around the side of the building. The funeral, for all three at the same time, was huge. 
My mother remembers this about the funeral: My father escorting one of the widows up the aisle, his face grey with grief and strain. He maintained his impeccable poise as a funeral director but on this day, this wasn’t simply business as usual. These deaths were personal, to the community and to my father. These deaths could not be held at bay by professionalism.
I had another column written for this week but on Monday morning as I sat at my desk at the Journal office, I decided this time, this week, could not business as usual. 
Each of us knows the pain of one sudden, tragic death; an accident, an unexpected illness. It seems to happen every month. We know the horror of five sudden, tragic deaths; those young fishermen lost at sea in February. A month of funerals.
The compulsion to rewrite my column comes from the fact Oxford is dealing with two losses this week. There likely isn’t a person in this small town that isn’t touched in some way by the sudden death of a long life and the tragic death of a young life. These deaths are not personal to me but I know people for whom they are and it seemed important, this time, to acknowledge the shock and sadness. 
I think of elephants, too, at this time, because they mourn their dead the way we do, with emotion and ritual, but also because elephants have a way of communicating using vibrations they send through the ground with their feet. There are vibrations coursing through the ground here, reaching everyone in some way, giving us a feeling for what is happening with our neighbours. In a small community, for one death or five, these vibrations make it possible to be aware of the circumstances even if there is no connection to the person who has died. That is what makes life, and death, in a small community so exceptional.
There are three ideal places to die: at home, in one’s sleep, and in a small town.
I do not write that facetiously. In a small town, no one dies alone, no one mourns alone. Death is one of life’s Great Inevitables and to shuffle off this mortal coil knowing that your family and friends, your children, your dog, will be cared for and supported, fed both physically and emotionally in the days and weeks following your departure is a comfort unique to a small community where everyone, even if he or she didn’t know you personally, knows your name, looks up from reading the obituaries and exclaims, “Oh, no! Mr. Little’s mom has died.”
This community, like other small ones, gathers together, not merely for a time at the funeral home but every day, before and after. The community does not let go, not before and not after. The names of the deceased are spoken widely, with kindness, while those who loved them and will struggle with their absence, are spoken to with understanding.
My only connection to the grief and mourning is that other element of death: regret.
Mr. Little, I’m very sorry I never acted upon my thought last year of interviewing you and your companion. It would have been a conversation to remember.


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