Where is Your Sting?

By Phineas J. Stone

Death is something we don’t often confront that much in these neighborhoods, not as much as in other places around Boston. Though hundreds die around us every week, Boston – and especially the downtown neighborhoods and the South End – are very young places. They are full of people who are in the prime of life, young and eager, or mid-life and in the full throes of success and high-energy work and social lives. Folks dash from place to place, getting things done and having fun on the way.

They attend cocktail parties.

They have meetings in real time, face-to-face (via computer) with people on the other side of the globe.

They play steering wheel (or handlebar) drums to great rock songs as they go.

Death is the furthest thing from the minds of most people around here. But death is certainly lurking for all of us, young and old. I was reminded of that this week when a friend of mine passed away too soon.

Boston is good with death, for those who may not know it.

There’s a whole “wake” culture in this city that has existed for decades. For those of us in that season of life, our friends, relatives, acquaintances and neighbors pass away more frequently than do those of the young and middle aged. One can find themselves at a wake multiple times each week. At some point, remembering becomes as important as living for those of us in that stage.

The culture thrives for two reasons in my estimation.

First, we know how to say good-bye. My theory is that Bostonians who have been around for awhile have come to terms with the fact that they’ll die one day; maybe we’re more comfortable with our mortality than in other parts of the country. Maybe it’s because we’re on the edge of the continent. Who knows? While we are eager to attend wakes and funerals and remember people happily, easily bumping between talk of our own death, in other parts of the country I believe death is ignored and only confronted quite surprisingly when the time actually comes.

Second, we have some very talented undertakers and marvelously inspiring churches for the funeral.

One of the most inspirational funerals I ever attended was at Mission Church. The cavernous cathedral has a breathtaking beauty just upon entering. Years ago, I attended a funeral there for a very old man. He had been a noted scientist and had made many friends and accomplished a great deal in his life. Unfortunately, he had outlived most of those people and, thus, his funeral in that large, towering church seemed a bit sparce.

Nonetheless, the priest gave him a great sendoff. There was no need for a microphone because of the perfect acoustics and and echoing words. I don’t remember the priests’ name, but he had known the old man, and he captured his life in the solemn and serious way we would all want done at the celebration of our own end.

I also attended an inspiring funeral at one of the South End’s historically black churches some years ago. My good friend’s mother passed away and she had been a life-long member of the church – and had been the choir director for years. She had a marvelous voice in her time. Her send off rocked the roof off of the church. The choir belted out tune after tune, songs which she had chosen some years before. This was a foot tapping funeral, and far more words were sang than spoken.

Death has been on my mind of late, though, in more than just the usual ways. A good friend of mine passed away far too early a few weeks ago. It’s the kind of death that makes you think, and think hard.

My friend, barely in her 50s, went to bed about two weeks ago with a headache. She apparently told others that it was allergy related. She never woke up the next day.

At her funeral over the weekend, there wasn’t a lot of celebration, but there was quite a bit said to think about.

The minister said death is an intruder.

How accurate it was at that moment. My friend was in the throes of life, working hard and socializing four or five days a week – being a good example to young people and a strong voice in the community.

Then death intruded.

We all spend countless amounts of money on locks and security systems in our lives to keep out intruders from our homes. No one wants someone that is uninvited intruding into their homes, their lives, stealing or taking things; ruining our peace of mind.

As the minister concluded last weekend, there are no locks to keep out this intruder. There are no security systems that will trip up the reaper. No one sends a letter of warning in the mail denoting the time and place the intruder will come.

The only choice is to put out the welcome mat, and do what we do well in Boston:  remember.


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