Wife, mother, grandma, neighbor. Philosopher, cook, mender of socks, bringer of beers, keeper of the faith. Rape victim, survivor of menopause, oft-stifled dingbat, woman of character, loyal companion, and tireless volunteer at the Sunshine Home for the elderly.

Edith, Edith, Edith -- how could you ever up and die on us?

Actually, Edith Bunker up and died in April, but the services will be held Sunday night on CBS. There won't be a dry eye in the nation. Shame on any eye that remains dry!

At last, a fantasy tragedy to take our minds off the presidential election.

On the one-hour season premier of "Archie Bunker's Place," at 8 on Channel 9, we learn that Edith has been gone "a little over a month," according to Archie's reluctant estimate, and Archie's affliction is that he cannot face this demoralizing fact.

Who could? For 10 years on "All in the Family" we watched Edith endure abuse, suffer fools, minister to those in need, make dinner. She became as dear and iconographic as the Statue of Liberty;" she became real. It was an actor's heartless selfishness that did her in; Jean Stapleton decided she no longer wanted to play the part. As if she'll ever get another one in her life that will mean half as much to millions and millions of people.

On the program, Archie is so embittered and distraught that he sleeps on the couch downstairs, won't answer the phone, won't open sympathy cards that arrive and won't even accept a $5,000 check from an insurance company because he would have to sign a "death claim" to get it.

Now at what point precisely will 40 or 50 million viewers puddle over helplessly in fountains of tears?

If it's any indication, I was already a lost cause by the time I pressed the playback button on the videotape machine.

About midway through the program, after Murray (Martin Balsam), Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois) and Veronica (anne Meara) have all tried to get Archie to let himself go, a saleslady, unaware of Edith's demise, arrives at the Bunkers door with some cosmetics Edith had ordered weeks earlier.

Rather than explain, Archie accepts the order, and after the woman has left, he stands in the doorway and says to himself, as if to Edith, "You never could say 'no' to anybody. Never could turn nobody away."

That did it for me.

In fact, the program is not up to the gravity and momentousness of the occasion. It was crudely underwritten by four different writers (two on each half-hour) who can't touch the kind of spare eloquence writers like Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf brought to "All in the Family." Of course the program has only been a shadow of itself since Mike and Gloria went West and the title was changed.

But one thing that remains an unfaltering constant is Carroll O'Connor's portrayal of Archie Bunker, one of the two or three most enduring comic-dramatic creations in the history of television. Archie, who still thinks we had a president named "Richard E. Nixon" and that Zimbabwe is a forward for the Knicks, has never faced a more devastating crisis, and it shows in every look, gesture and reaction of O'Connor's elegant, flawless performance.

Unfortunately, somebody thought it shrewd business to end the show with a laugh -- an incredibly klutzy, insensitive miscalculation. But then the people at Tandem Productions don't seem to realize how important a part of the folklore Edith has become. Norman Lear knew, but Norman isn't there any more. He's out trying to save the country from Jerry Falwell.

"I almost expect to see her walkin' right through the door," says waitress Veronica, who has been enlisted to help go through Edith's things, pack them in boxes, and ship them off to Jersey. Though in many ways inadequately dramatized, and perhaps too conscientious about keeping a stiff upper lip, Sunday night's "Archie Bunker" might be especially valuable viewing for children who someday will have to deal themselves with the crippling blow of just such a loss.

And for unashamed blubberers and sentimentalists of all ages, it amounts to a gratifyingly carthartic ordeal. Thank God for syndicated reruns, in which Edith will live forever.