Around and About with Richard McCarthy: Hoping no breach is too great to carry past grave

Monday, December 13, 2021

I read the obituaries in the online edition of the newspaper from my original hometown. I do this not so much out of an abundance of morbidity, hopefully, as out of a desire to keep up with the comings and goings of folks who I know there.

Not long ago, I saw the obituary of a kid who had lived two houses from me in the neighborhood I moved to when I was 12 years old. There was nothing unusual in the first 13 lines of the obituary — employment, relatives, favorite pastimes, etc. The 14th line said that his “wishes were for Mary and John Smith (names changed) not to attend any of his services.”

I have to admit that my first reaction was to chuckle. In all the obituaries I’d ever read, I’d never seen anything similar. Then, as often happens with me, I began to take a deeper dive. For openers, it was hard for me to imagine that such a line could find its way into an obituary for reasons that didn’t include bitterness. I found myself wondering what the twosome had done to give birth to such a dying wish.

At that juncture, I could have put the muse in me on hold, put on my detective hat, and sought to dig up all the facts I could about the deceased’s relationship to the banned couple. I could have attempted to mine fully the information available on the internet and, after waiting a quasi-decent interval, sought to speak to people who knew the deceased and/or the twosome.

I didn’t pursue the above avenues of possible information, though. I have a soft spot for wonderment, for imagining, for possibilities, for mystery unsolved. In line with this disinclination to pursue “the facts, ma’am, just the facts,” in this instance I wasn’t so much interested in the origins of the deceased’s resentment as in its outcomes — not so much interested in its lyrics as in the haunting melody it left behind.

I had a friend of many years with whom I had a falling out and with whom I never reconciled before he died. In an attempt to make peace with that rending, I took a little jar and collected some water from the Vermont lake in which his ashes had been spread. When I got back to Massachusetts, I poured the water into the ground around and between his parents’ gravestones.

By doing so, I sought to do my friend a service by bringing the family together, symbolically at least, for all time. I don’t know that it did so, but I do know I believe a great deal would have been lost, to my friend and to me, if he had left instructions that discouraged any such gesture at posthumous healing.

When I die (I almost wrote “if” instead of “when”), people will decide whether to come to any services that might be held for me for any number of reasons — because they want to, because they’d be expected to, because they see some advancement of their agenda by doing so, because they want to make peace with our history together, etc. But the idea of using my survivors like bouncers at a bar to prevent someone from attending never occurred to me.

When all is said and done, I may have been inspired by my boyhood friend’s originality in his obituary enough to leave my own instructions as to who would be welcome at my sendoff. Mine would simply say “one and all.”

Perhaps my welcoming everyone is because one thing I do know about my death is that I’ll die on a day I’m living, and I try, however imperfectly, to live so as not to cherish enmity toward anyone. Or perhaps my openness to anyone wanting to attend my last get-together on this earth is for no more noble a reason than I would prefer to have as much as possible of humanity’s wind at my back as I am launched into the Great Unknown.

Amherst resident Richard McCarthy, a longtime columnist at the Springfield Republican, writes a monthly column for the Gazette.