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from the "Departures" collection

The graveside service, in a grim prairie churchyard or some cinematic cemetery with old trees and broad green lawns, provides dramatic ballast for hundreds of motion pictures. Filmmakers like to shoot the scene from a bird's-eye camera, or zoom in from a great distance on the grief-hushed gathering until we can hear the clergyman's traditional words of cold comfort. It's a foolproof setup, almost a cliche, that often forces our tears with a small child who stands pale-faced at military attention like John-John Kennedy at Arlington--or more realistically fidgets and pulls at his mother's coat or runs off among the trees. It's understood, and part of the pathos, that the rituals of death as yet mean nothing to this child. But just as often there's an adolescent--a boy in a blue blazer and a borrowed striped tie, a girl in a long cloth coat with a bow in her hair--who's just old enough to comprehend that death is final and serious, and that a familiar emotional landscape has been forever altered.

That was my role, as I recall it, at the first funeral I ever attended. I was thirteen; my great-grandmother, Mary Ann Naylor Crowther, was dead at ninety-four. She was born in Southowram, Yorkshire, near Halifax, during the American Civil War, and emigrated to the United States when she was a girl. She lived in this country for three-quarters of a century and never lost or noticeably altered her mid-Victorian North Country accent. "'Aaarold," she called me, and hated my nickname: "The boy's name is 'Aaarold--'Al's a fool's name." "Name" was pronounced more like "nem," I remember, and she rolled her "L's" exotically.

I loved my great-grandmother. I was the only great-grandchild old enough to attempt a more or less adult conversation, and old enough to be unintimidated by her strange accent and her great age. She was tall, thin, and ramrod-straight, very severe-looking when I knew her, but of course she was in her eighties when we met. She was the oldest person I knew. I used to sit up in her room after she broke her hip and could no longer negotiate the stairs. She reminisced about horse-and-buggy England and about Queen Victoria; she claimed to remember the death of Abraham Lincoln, though she was only three when he was killed. We drank tea with milk, a habit I've retained. She indulged me with hard candy, butterscotch and peppermint, from a tin in the top drawer of her dresser. Above the dresser was a Constable-inspired oil painting of an idealized English landscape, a herd of brindle cows in a water-meadow at dusk. No doubt my great-grandmother was one of the reasons I gravitated, during my academic period, toward the poetry and fiction of Thomas Hardy.

It was probably the first fully civilized relationship I ever experienced. At her funeral, one of the first questions that came to me was "Who will speak for her now?" She was a domestic spirit from another century who never imposed herself much on the world at large. Though her husband, whom she'd outlived by thirty-three years, had been an ambitious, periodically flamboyant man of business, I've had no luck imagining her as a businessman's wife in the age of George Babbitt. There was much I could never know about her; in her last years no one except me, a child, had been listening to her carefully. And now she was dead.

I suppose it was unusual, along with feeling grief and loss, to be struck as I was by the helplessness of the dead, by their defenselessness as others tell their stories and rank their accomplishments. But I come from a verbal, rhetorical clan, where each of us was perpetually presenting his case and establishing his defense. In one sense I guess everything I've ever written is a part of my brief--my authorized version, to minimize misunderstanding and misinterpretation when I can no longer speak for myself. And I don't deny that I've developed an impulse to speak for others, like my great-grandmother who lived so long and wrote nothing, and said so much less than she should have.

A few years ago I discovered that the dead, even the famous dead, are far more helpless than I had imagined. The dead can't sue, you see, and their descendants can't sue on their behalf. Fools and scoundrels can take a spotless reputation, one that took a century to build, and tear it to shreds before the funeral wreaths have wilted. In a middling gangster movie starring Laurence Fishburne and Tim Roth, I was aghast to find Thomas E. Dewey, the fighting New York DA, governor and near-president of the United States, portrayed as a vile hypocrite and a bagman for the mob. Can they do that? I asked a lawyer, and he assured me that they can. Much later I read that some of Dewey's descendants had protested this posthumous smear to no avail.

There are worse cases; some of the scoundrels might surprise you. In his much-praised recent novel "The Master," based on the life of Henry James, the Irish writer Colm Toibin has James sodomized by none other than Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Civil War hero and legendary justice of the United States Supreme Court. It's charitable to say that history offers no whisper of support for this distasteful fiction. It seemed to cause no furor, no scandal. Was I the only one offended? In junior high I read "Yankee From Olympus," Catherine Drinker Bowen's hagiographic life of Holmes, and I numbered him, vaguely, among my heroes. I know that Colm Toibin's politically correct, gay-friendly defense is "So what's wrong with that?" But I can't see that it matters whether Toibin thinks he committed a libel, or whether I do. It only matters what Mr. Holmes would think (not to mention Mr. James), and of course that stern Victorian gentleman would beat Toibin to death with a horsewhip, and quite justifiably, too.

The dead retain no rights. Too many writers of fiction have discovered that they can attract readers with historical characters--with expired celebrities. This is a dubious commercial practice, much like rotating TV stars through the casts of Broadway plays, and it proliferates with a reckless disregard for truth or decency. Even cruder than Toibin's homoerotic fantasies about proper Bostonians is a scene in Guy Vanderhaeghe's "The Englishman's Boy" that portrays the great actress Lillian Gish as a sloppy, low-rent Hollywood whore. I was enjoying the book, but at this outrage I took personal offense and pitched it across the room. In 1974 I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Ms. Gish; I was no less charmed by this remarkable woman, then over 80, than H.L. Mencken had been when he met her in her prime in 1924. "A shrewd, well-informed and amusing woman," the Sage of Baltimore judged her. I found her all of that. And my God, she was wearing a powder-blue wimple, a beautiful woman's last, vain defense against the sad truth that a swan-like neck is not forever. In those days a slave to the movies, I fell half in love with a woman old enough to be my grandmother.

What meanness inspired Vanderhaeghe, one of Canada's better novelists, to commit this sacrilege against history, memory, and, saddest of all, chivalry? Gish had been dead only three years--she lived just short of a century--when he chose to make a dirty joke of her celebrated career. Vanderhaeghe, like Toibin, is a writer of actual ability. Imagine the calumnies the bankable dead must be suffering at the hands of pulp writers and hacks.

Fame, fleeting and fragile, is by its nature in the public domain. The mob loves to lift up its idols almost as much as it loves to tear them down. But unless we believe that it all evens out with our just deserts in heaven or hell--I'm not of that persuasion--our mortal reputations deserve more consideration. It isn't right or civilized that you could serve humanity heroically for 50 years--nurse indigents in a barrio, for instance--and yet be dismissed as a drug dealer or a pervert, the day after your death, by the one malignant enemy you never knew you had. It may sound like a strange cause, and a hopeless one, but there ought to be a law against the promiscuous defamation of the dead.

One perceptive reader noticed that obituaries inspired or influenced a fair number of my essays, and suggested a diagnosis of chronic, possibly pathological morbidity. In this case I offered no defense. For me the important distinction is that none of these pieces is an obituary. I've written only one assigned obituary in my life, for the soprano who was onstage singing at the Pan-American Exposition, in 1901, when Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley directly in front of her. Interrupted in mid-aria, she climbed down from the stage and tore off strips of her long white concert gown to stanch the dying president's wounds. The rest of her long life--she died in her late nineties--was only slightly less dramatic.

This fortunate assignment from the city desk of the Buffalo News opened my eyes to the marvelous possibilities of the form. But an obituary is a deadline assignment, a quick visit to the newspaper's morgue while the deceased still lies in the coroner's. What I've tried to do, instead, is to reflect at leisure on the context and consequences of certain lives and deaths--lives that affected or intrigued me, in most cases, and lives that were misunderstood or overlooked. Many of the individuals who appear in this book were very well served by their eulogists--at their respective memorial services Marshall Frady was eulogized by Jesse Jackson, Kirk Varnedoe by the cream of America's art establishment, James Dickey by a chorus of poets, Sister Evelyn Mattern by her peers, some of the loftiest spirits in North Carolina. But others seemed to cry out for a second opinion, a second, more carefully developed petition for posterity's respect. For better or worse, I have frequently served as a self-appointed reputation adjustor, a one-vote final tribunal for the departed.

The adjustment isn't always a positive one. Just as the best often need a champion, the dreadful require a stern magistrate when they outlive the public's memory of their crimes. Amnesia blurs and simplifies our heroes and whitewashes most of our villains. As a public servant, our Sen. Jesse Helms was a disaster and a disgrace. The pity we feel for the very old and sick, beholding them in their terminal feebleness, can't be allowed to exonerate a human crocodile who supported apartheid in South Africa as well as in the Carolinas, whose best friends in Latin America commanded death squads. Richard Nixon was a viral toxin from which the body politic may never fully recover. Do we clear him to sail across the River Styx as a fully rehabilitated elder statesman?

The adjustor can't always be kind; he won't always be accurate and definitive either. Romanticizing the ethereal Grace Kelly I remember singing "True Love" to Bing Crosby in "High Society," I'm afraid I mourned Princess Grace, after her awful death, as the comforting epitome of a generation of sweet home-loving All-American girls whose like we'll never see again. That was before her biographers revealed a spoiled tramp of truly unsettling promiscuity, who apparently slept with the leading man in every picture she made. I plead youth on that one, and the youthful infatuation with the movies I confessed already. If you have to be wrong about the dead, it's best to err on the side of generosity--an error with which the living rarely charge me.

My premature canonization of Princess Grace was one of several bursts of misplaced enthusiasm that reminded me of the virtues of the obituary, based on facts and records, as opposed to the eulogy which blends emotion, memory and association. These essays, which are neither, aspire to the virtues of both. They represent a sober commitment--no one does this for a living--as well as a great risk that I may be haunted (figuratively or literally) by vengeful shades of the worthy dead I've insulted or shortchanged.

As with any altruistic enterprise, whether it's animal rescue or the child-preserver Holden Caulfield lurking in the rye, there's the painful reality that you can't save them all. You're forced to be highly selective. Some lines of poetry that always haunted me are from Eliot's "The Wasteland":

"Unreal City

 Under the brown fog of a winter dawn

 A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

 I had not thought death had undone so many.

Adjustors expect no thanks for our services, though sometimes they come and can be highly gratifying, like a note from Samuel Beckett's nephew who said that I had captured Beckett best of all. But of course there's a selfish side, too. A journalist strives for perspective. Yet the more perspective you achieve, the harder it is to work the daily shift in your profession. Our collective life as a species, viewed from high above, is a succession of wars, skirmishes and tentative ceasefires among colonies of fierce ants--millennia of chaos and carnage understood imperfectly if at all by the exhausted insects, resolving nothing and defying any interpretation from above. Imposing meaning or a coherent narrative pattern on the actual stuff of our lives is like trying to make sculpture out of water, or so it always seemed to me. You can't shape water unless it's frozen; death freezes one plane of reality for at least one moment. The face you find on the obituary page is the one sitter who sits still for his portrait.

You work with the illusion of a stationary subject, but you have to work fast--an essay, not a biography, because the temperature may be rising and, to extend the life of the metaphor, anyone's version of anyone else is as impermanent as ice sculpture.

A life ended is a story that won't be revised or radically refocused, at least until the historians and biographers begin to chip away at it, and so few of us merit their attention. I can praise or damn the deceased with little fear that the best of them will yet disappoint me, or the worst surprise me. I can hope, in other words, to do justice to them, and offer them confidently as examples.

The other obvious virtue of these churchyard meditations is their inalienable gravity, in which the adjustor selfishly shares. "Death trumps gossip," Larry McMurtry wrote recently. "Death trumps gab, no matter how brilliant the gabber..." Awash in tidal waves of trivia and pop-cultural debris, most of us still pause and take off our hats when Death passes; most of us still suspend our self-involvement for sober reflection when Death carries off someone for whom we feel affection or respect. The leveling effect of the mass media, where no one dead or alive is entitled to privacy or dignity, has not yet turned Death into a comic character who waits his turn with the rest.

In Memoriam Thomas Hardy

How to speak with the dead

so that not only

our but their

words are valid?

Unlike their stones,

they scarcely resist us,

memory adjusting

its shades, its mist:

They are too like their photographs

where we can fill

with echoes of our regrets

brown worlds of stillness.

His besetting word

was "afterwards" and it released

their qualities, their restlessness,

as though they heard it.

               --Charles Tomlinson 

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