THE LAST WORD: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy
By Julia Cooper. Coach House Books. 110 pp. $13.95
A decade ago, my oldest sister was diagnosed with a serious illness. Treatments, surgeries, nothing worked. Less than two years later, she left us.
It fell to me to deliver her eulogy.
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, to stand by her open grave alongside other people who loved her, and attempt to explain and summarize what she meant. Even trying to compose the text seemed beyond me. I wanted people to know her as I knew her. I wanted us all to wallow together in our loss, yet I tried to offer hope that we might see ourselves through it. When I look back on my words now, they read flat and inadequate, unworthy of her memory.
I want to thank you all for coming here today and joining us in grief . . .
I never want to do another eulogy.
In “The Last Word,” a meditation on the eulogy as art form, personal turmoil and collective therapy, Julia Cooper helps me understand why I might have struggled to compose those lines and why, perhaps, I should not judge the outcome so harshly. Her slim book soon transcends the eulogy; it is, itself, a eulogy for grief in a moment when grieving has become commodified and truncated, a short detour in the pursuit of happiness.
For the eulogist, the first challenge is time, Cooper writes. “The brief interlude between the death of a loved one and the eulogy’s performance requires a lot of compression — so much processing of loss needs to happen so quickly.” When grieving is rushed, when the logistics of death take priority over grief itself, it becomes harder to summon words and ideas that do justice to the life being honored or even to the act of honoring it.
“To eulogize is to say out loud that a life is not forgotten when it crosses the threshold into death,” Cooper writes. “It means something to those left to grieve it, and the attempt to encapsulate that life in an act of articulation is one of the truest labours of love there is.”
But spoken aloud, that love is often reduced to cliches and platitudes, not merely because of time constraints but also because of the compulsion to pay tribute to the life that has ended. The word’s Greek root (eulogia) means “praise,” and its duty to praise is “the reason the contemporary eulogy rings false or falters in its dependence on cliche.”
A eulogy that is forthright about someone’s life and death is considered unacceptable. Cooper recalls with disdain the funeral service for Princess Diana Spencer in 1997 — one of the first truly global deaths of the early Internet age — emphasizing how the trappings of the event succeeded only in flattening a complicated life, rendering it more palatable to the world and the grieving British public. She is particularly tough on Elton John’s Westminster Abbey rendition of “Candle in the Wind” (adapted into “Goodbye, England’s Rose”), a song originally inspired by the passing of Marilyn Monroe. “By linking the deaths of the Princess and Monroe, John revealed a few things,” Cooper decides. “First, his lack of imagination. Second, when it comes to popular female icons, people prefer to stick to clear-cut and recognizable tropes. And third, with ‘Candle in the Wind,’ John chose to keep Diana in the realm of image as opposed to flesh.”
The modified lyrics — invoking Diana’s “wings of compassion” and hailing her as the nation’s “golden child,” one whose footsteps “will always fall here, among England’s greenest hills” — are but a high-profile instance of the cliches that eulogies almost inevitably inspire. Though it’s a bit too easy to knock a pop star for trite lyrics, Cooper notes that virtually all public expressions of grief in the social-media era have degenerated into such banalities. We’re all Elton John now — and every dead celebrity is England’s rose.
When David Bowie and Prince passed away last year, social media became a game of “grief-stricken one-upsmanship,” Cooper recalls. “To hashtag-RIP a celeb . . . because that’s what the well-branded avatars you follow online are doing is not to grieve. It is to perform a version of grief that carries with it some virtual currency, some sense of social cachet. Grief is performed on social media as part of an unspoken competition to grieve the most beautifully, eloquently, and intimately across platforms.”
And it rarely turns out all that eloquent or intimate. “There’s something about the norms and customs of grieving on these platforms that stacks the deck against deeper reflection,” Cooper writes. “In the wake of Bowie’s death, then Prince’s, the tidy online frenzy of micro-eulogies appeared briefly before users moved on to other things — as though the work of grieving could be so thoroughly routinized, compact, and easy to dispense with.”
Mourning becomes a competition to win “Top Griever” status in your social network, as Cooper puts it, to be the one others turn to for the obscure video, the archived picture, the foreshadowing lyrics, thus garnering greater social-media capital. “Social media trades on grief,” Cooper writes, “as though each post, each tweet, were a step in the grieving process and not an elision of that very process.” And Cooper suggests that even our non-celebrity mourning, for those we truly knew and cared for, is starting to mirror the more self-involved and generic variety of grief.
This book is in part a reflection on the pivotal death in the author’s own life — that of her mother, who died of cancer when Cooper was in college. She struggled to put her grief into words, even in the privacy of her diary — “I would have been too scared to utter them even if I’d found them” — and still resents the social pressure to move on, to grow, to get beyond her grief and focus on, you know, the good times.
Instead she finds solace in slivers of ordinariness, such as a grocery list her mother made a few months before her death. “I like to look at the list because in her cursive hand my mom comes back to me. . . . Why this scrap of paper holds what feels like a universe for me is because with her death I lost all the trivial things that made my mother, Pat, a multi-dimensional person, that made her alive instead of dead.”
For me, it’s a Bumble the Abominable Snowman bobblehead found among my sister’s workplace items. It sits on my own desk now, and the fact that I have no idea why she would hold on to such an absurd object makes it all the more delightful to see it every day. After all, she did, too.
Cooper explores theater, psychology, film, fiction and poetry to understand how we’ve considered grief over the centuries. She exults in Sophocles’s “Antigone,” with the title character’s defiant and enduring mourning, and holds up John Goodman’s eulogy of Steve Buscemi in “The Big Lebowski” as a perfect parody of the form’s heartfelt inarticulateness.
I often recall the opening moments of Alice McDermott’s 1997 novel, “Charming Billy,” in which relatives and friends gather to mark a death and immediately begin rewriting a life. In Orson Scott Card’s introduction to his 1986 sci-fi novel, “Speaker for the Dead,” he complains that “we use our funerals to revise the life of the dead . . . in effect, we kill them all over again.” Card prefers a more honest accounting — not a balanced ledger of good and bad but an understanding of “what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. . . . At the time of death, it’s the only story truly worth telling.”
But it’s one that takes time to learn, let alone share. If Cooper has little patience for the superficiality of modern grief, she has even less for its efficiency. “I don’t want to relinquish my dead,” she explains.
We want a linear progression of grief, to find that moment when it is finally done. But death, Cooper reminds us, “isn’t going anywhere.” I am grateful to this book for suggesting why the eulogy I delivered — perhaps like all eulogies — seemed to fall short. It is both freeing and eviscerating to admit that my sister’s continuing absence helps me grasp more clearly what her presence meant. To really eulogize someone, you can’t stop.