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Euphemisms and Eulogies

My mother died just over a week ago. I lit a memorial candle when I came home from the funeral and it was still burning yesterday morning, beyond its time. My mother was a complicated, forceful, intelligent, challenging woman. Psychically damaged by her experiences during World War II and the murder of her family—our family—she was not particularly loving or sweet. Memorable, yes. Remarkable, certainly, but not sweet. Yet many condolence notes have said she was “sweet.” I do realize that these notes are meant to console and am grateful for them. And I do realize that not everyone is a writer who searches for the right words to say. Stock phrases surface that have been used by others: “I am sorry for your loss,” for example.

Equally, I have always been disturbed by the way in which survivors soften loss with exaggerations, untruths and omissions. Are we afraid that if we speak the truth to ourselves and one another at a funeral or memorial we will be cursed?

As she lay dying in the hospital—and even that phrase sounds familiar, the title of a book by William Faulkner—we talked to my mother, stroked her, and played her Beethoven and Mozart. I read her Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils. We told her how much we loved her for hours and hours, suppressing our ambivalent feelings. We wanted her to have a peaceful end and we all wanted to feel peaceful at her end.

My mother was gone for me as soon as she drew her last breath and, as a scientist, she would have maintained that all that was left of her on earth was her cadaver. Yet, unbeknownst to us, she had directed the funeral home to bury her in a shroud, an ancient practice still prevalent among Muslims and Orthodox Jews. The image of a shrouded corpse slipping into the desert sand is a powerful one charged with history in the land of my family’s origins. I carried it with me into the synagogue for the service and our honest words of praise known as eulogies.
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