How can you wake the dead? There is a point when we all must die, a point when life is a fading memory, when we have nothing left to hold onto, grasping at air but none will come. They say, in these times of darkness, weakness, and all that lies in between, that only one thing will draw us back. One thing, one thought: love. If we can reach out, find that thing that causes us to live, to want to life… the we can wake ourselves from the mighty beast: Slumber. Some may slumber until they sleep, slowly fading like a memory of past lives lived: there… but not really there. This is the way, though sad it my seem, we all wish to go. Some say they want to go out fighting, but
if we fight all of our lives, why then desire it in death? These people lie to themselves, trying to look strong for others, but flirting with weakness when they are alone.
Death is nothing pretty. It is the face between those fading memories that wills you to forget the love you want to hold onto, fights your will to go on… survive.
Many, without knowing it, are minions of the Great Slumber, servants of the beast. He causes emotions to battle each other until one prevails. Love is the enemy of our enemy. He does not battle against us, does not hate the living as it may seem Death should. No, death fights emotion with emotion. If love is that one thing that can bring us back from Eternal Sleep, that single thought to which we must hold for salvation, then Hatred is what drowns us.
We can justify many things. It always seems that the wrong is against us, at least this is the lie. Brother against brother. Sister against lover all vying for that last slice of pie as the plates come hurling towards us. When life gives you lemons, the trick is to make lemonade… but first you have to catch them.
For me, it was not a citrus circus from the sky, nor did the crowd throw stones. As a funeral director, death is a paycheck, though I don’t think of it that way. My opportunities are incredible, emotional times of final farewells, but also times when the worst of humanity comes out. It is as if the love of the loved one has run out, so those who remain have none left to give. If it is love that keeps us alive, no wonder so many people die, seeing the state of those that remain. Their canine claws pick over the remains, searching for scraps from the table of Death. (As if they didn’t have enough to feed themselves.)
My favourite funerals are those like my most recent final farewell. There is something special about sitting on the docks before the family arrives, waves laughing between your toes. They are so weak on the surface, yet great secrets swim underneath, power deep within. It is this taste of power that draws me in, the temptation of a little lap against my skin promising more further out to sea. It may be this that has, of late, caused so many to favor the waves over a dark, empty, lifeless pit for their dead. As the waves pull those pyres out to sea, it is almost as if they are alive again, slowly waving goodbye as they slip away. Then, once the waves have taken them over, the fire is lit. Flames explode in the distance to signify the power and glory of their final resting place. Not a dead hole, but living water, raging fire: not going out fighting, but the elements give the onlookers a taste.
But power is seductive. It sucks us in like those tiny lapping waves, tempting us to go deeper, deeper still until we are drowning in it. Then the fire erupts in our hearts, we burn for a while, die out and are forgotten.
I will never forget the power of that day: the eruption. It didn’t start until the whole family was gathered. So often, with challenging families, there is evidence of the danger before it comes—arguments over how to do the funeral: who will speak, how they will dress, what format to us, and (the more important) who will pay for it.
John Cleaver was known for being a quiet man, but went out with a bang. He planned it all down to a “T.” The letter was delivered to me at the moment of his passing by the attending physician. In Mr. Cleaver’s breast pocket was found two copies of a letter and instructions of where to mail them when that final sleep came for him. I received one, signed and seal, and its details were confirmed by the other recipient, John’s brother. He, as it happens, came into my office just as I was reading John’s final address for a second time. The letters were compared and confirmed to be holistically identical. From then on, there were no questions asked.
Mr. Cleaver left, in trust, a large sum of money to pay for all of the proceedings. And so it was that the late John Cleaver was attended by his family at the docks of Lake Lucifer. Not a word was said, save for the few between the brother of the deceased and myself at the delivery of the letter from John. I thought, as it seemed, that perhaps John was the father of their inherited silence. Slow to speak, thoughtful of the future, and the most humble endurer of long-suffering that I ever did know. Perhaps, if such had been the state of his family in its entirety, the funeral would have gone off without a hitch. As it were, however, there was another letter that Mr. Cleaver left with the attending doctor, one to be delivered a week later. Its contents, though I never learned their exact instructions, had to do with the matters of his estate. The postal system had been much improved since John first penned the letters, and so his intentions for the second letter arriving after his final farewell happened one day too early.
Each sibling pair (spouse and all) was the proud recipient of an identical letter insuring to the most minute detail who would inherit of the great wealth which he had accumulated over the years. It was not up to me to deal with such affairs, and all the better for it, yet in these moments of high emotions and low tides, I was the unfortunate recipient of the emotional results.
John never owed any debts. He didn’t believe in the concept, and as if such musings were enough to keep the claws of desire from him, John died as he had lived, no debts to be paid.
The proceedings began as usual, but there was something strange in the air. It was not simply the breeze from the west instead of the east. No, this was something far more foreboding, as if a cloud hung over me, though the sky couldn’t have been more clear. As I spoke of Mr. Cleaver, none seemed to notice me. I could have been speaking about an entirely different man and those in attendance would have made as much complaint as John himself. If the clouds had indeed decided to give way, the storm I felt coming made evident, surely the family would have drowned. Each and every nose in that place was up so high that the drink would have poured right in.
I kept my head down, secure in my notes about John. The more and more that I read them, the more I felt that surely this was the wrong funeral. I spoke of how loving Mr. Cleaver had been, how kind to all, always willing to give a hand. The man had more skills in his frail bones than everyone in attendance combined, yet more humility than a peasant. It appeared that the great Lake Lucifer would be more likely to reach up and pull me in than any of John’s family, would fate have it that I light myself afire when performing the final rights.
Slowly the event came to a close. With each word I wished that perhaps, this time, I had less to say about the dearly departed. But no, I could not slight Mr. Cleaver because of his family’s indifference towards the affair. The barge was waiting, John’s remains bobbing up and down with the rhythm of the waves. A soft drone began as the bagpipes picked up their tune. In and out, the waves matched cadence with the wind. In and out of human lungs, swirling, heaving a somber drone of farewell. The flutist began with a flourish, picking the notes carefully, as if plucking them from the water and drying them off before kissing the mouthpiece of his instrument and breathing out the tune. There was not singer in the group, but all knew the words.
I watched my lover float away
Beneath that moon of yor.
We’ll meet again on that day
Beyond the distant shore.
While the pipes droned and flute hummed, I pulled my arrow set with pitch. Two torches stood like mighty Gabriels, one to each side of the docks. Each guarded with swords aflame, grave robbers be warned. A nod to those pilgrim keepers and my arrow was lit. I drew back, fletching to ear, tail feathers whispering, one final message from them to beloved John Cleaver. I loosed the arrow. It flew, soared, the singer in those operatic skies whistling a farewell.
He lived with love and selflessness,
But now taken away.
No saviour from the selfishness
Of those crystal waves.
The arrow struck true, a tiny speck of light in that night so dark. Then, in the space between darkness and light, death and life, all was silent. The bagpipe drone faded, flute played out the tune, and I almost heard the wind whisper the name of the deceased. That single moment of silence was the culmination of the life of Mr. Cleaver. A moment that finally faded, yet not forgotten. The fire blazed, roared with its final farewell. A life well lived, death well reserved, soul taken to the clouds in flame. All that John once was burned with his body, the old dead and gone.
As a funeral director, the imagery gave me a blissful chill. What a beautiful sending off! I was so caught up in the moment that I didn’t notice the fire raging behind me, until it was too late. No, not a fire of physical proportions, but one of rage. A raging ball from the family of the late John Cleaver: the man who loved the world so much that there was nothing left in those Cleaver genes.
Some say they want to go out fighting. I have never said that, never been one to pretend to be something that I am not. But Death, though I spent much time with him, shared no sympathies. I was not on fire, yet Lake Lucifer came for me. For one with a profession such as I, and so attuned to the symbolism of the waves, it may be assumed that I shared aquatic aptitude. That assumption, however, would be as false as those which I thought were John’s family. My end was not glorious: dying in battle, but not the way that some imagine. The waves acted as minions of the Great Slumber. Choking, coughing, gasping. No saviour from the selfishness of those crystal waves.
Between blinks of life and death, Mr. Cleaver shone: a beacon in that night so dark and cold. Logs spilled off the barge as flames ate through the ropes which held them fast. Around and around they tumbled in the waves until the fire were all but extinguished. Those loose cannons rolled while the great pyre at the centre blazed on, warmer than the man whose body was there laid.
It might have been that I knew Death, but He knew me not. John, however, knew me well. My. Cleaver owed no debts, not even to me, yet in one final act of love he reached out. The pyre flames morphed as they rose, higher and higher, great Gabriels to the right and left. They sat atop chariots set ablaze, horse hooves smoking as they descended. Great clouds of steam bloomed from the deeps: fire against water. I saw, between the waves, a figure standing amidst the flames: the very image of my late friend, John Cleaver. His hand stretched out toward me, a flaming spectre on a chariot. His voice was a whispering flute, yet so loud that it droned through the noise of the flames.
A saviour from the selfishness
Of those crystal waves.
We’’l meet again on that day
Beyond the distant shore.
It is from a place above that I now write you. No, not even the greatest imagery of my past profession could describe this place. John’s sending, though glorious it was, held no comparison. But, it is not of this that I write to you. Instead it is the witness of a doctor who has joined me in this place. A doctor who, in John, held a common friend and saviour. A doctor who also received a letter at the point of John’s passing regarding the estate of late Mr. Cleaver.
“I owe men nothing but love. May that be the treasure of my inheritance. I instruct you, dear doctor, to sell all that I own and buy gold by the pound. Place it beneath my pyre and let no man take hold of such treasure.” Unbeknownst to myself or the doctor, the family was not made aware of these arrangements until that final day, one too early, with me at the docks, and the great treasure of Mr. Cleaver floating among the waves.
The greatest minions of Slumber are these: wrath, greed, and pride. John’s family showed all of them. I have no more time to direct the Dead, myself having joined their ranks. Whoever it might be that takes my place, I leave to you this one final word. “If it had not been for John Cleaver who was on my side, when men rose up against me, they would have swallowed me alive. The waters would have overwhelmed me, and the swollen waters would have overtaken my soul.” Pride comes before a fall. And, if you ever get a chance to meet the lost family of Mr. Cleaver tell them this story. Tell them that in these dark times, only one things will draw them back: love.