Death has been a fixture in my life lately. I attended the traditional Catholic Mass and burials of a beloved aunt and uncle. I went to a unique memorial service for a co-worker’s son who loved country music. It was held at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. And I attended my first open-casket funeral for a neighbor’s daughter. The daughter was my age, so this last one really hit home. My reading life of late is mirroring this trend.
Post format: Connections
Many of my posts feature books dating back decades, at times centuries. But A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman is on USA Today’s best seller list. Some might question its popularity. The title character is a world-hating curmudgeon whose wife has died. He attempts suicide repeatedly to reunite with her. Then a family in need moves in across the street. Before it’s all over, he’s helped them and everyone else in the neighborhood. I grew to love Ove and you will too if you read this one-of-kind book.
While driving out of my older neighborhood, I spied a roadside sign that read “Estate Sale! 50 Years of Stuff!” I found the address and went. But I felt like a trespasser the minute I entered. A lady from a bygone era had lived here. A dining room cabinet held beautiful crystal glasses. Chintz draperies covered the living room windows and matched the fabric on the couch. When I wandered to the back bedroom, her dresses still hung neatly in the closet.
Is this how it all ends, I thought. A lifetime’s worth of possessions on display for strangers to pick through? Then I entered a small room off the main hall. It was filled with books. Suddenly I no longer felt intrusive. Surely this lady was a reader who would love others to enjoy these books. I bought a stack. And wouldn’t you know a few of them feature death as a theme. Seven Gothic Tales is a short story collection by Isak Dinesen published in 1934. The first story, The Deluge at Normandy, was so complex and beautiful that I read it twice. In it four strangers are stuck in the upper reaches of a barn during a terrible flood. During their night together, we get to know these characters and their back stories as they await rescue. But death is rising to meet them in the dark floodwaters.
“As if they had been four marionettes, pulled by the same wire, the four people turned their faces to one another…’How will these people do to die with?’ the castaways of the hayloft asked themselves. “
Children’s literature isn’t free of death. Fairy tales are full of it. I reread “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen recently. As a child, I remember being horrified and heartbroken at the ending of this tale in which a poor, unwanted girl freezes to death after her last match goes out. But reading the tale as an adult, Anderson’s intent became clearer. This child loses nothing by leaving this world, rather she gains entry into heaven “where there was no more cold, no hunger, and no pain.”
Lastly, I found a book at the estate sale written for those grieving. It is a Wartime Book published in 1944. In From Sunset to Dawn, Leslie R. Smith weaves his own observations about dying with quotes from some of the world’s greatest thinkers: Longfellow, Tennyson, Henrik Ibsen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning to name a few. My own mortality and that of my loved ones has been on my mind, so I marked helpful passages. But I was most comforted by the words of a Christian theologian who studied among the greatest minds of science and philosophy in the ancient world. Death is only the beginning, he said.
“Christ changes all our sunsets into dawns.” –Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.)