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THE FARTHERMOST VIEW

Selected Podpieces

NAMING THE DEAD

It's funny, isn't it, how people often get nervous about saying the name of a recently dead person. When we run into a widow, or a newly-orphaned adult, or a parent whose child has died, we'll say, “How are you doing? I'm so sorry for your loss. Is there anything I can do?”

Of course, there's not anything we could say that will really help. And there's nothing we can do to make them feel better; just some tasks that will make a day a little easier to get through, like bringing supper or shoveling the sidewalk or cleaning up the dog yard for them.

But one of the things that advice columns advise is to talk about the dead person, to use his or her name; and for some reason, that can suddenly get scary.

Advice columns are one of my favorite sources of leisure reading. I have learned so much about so many things I'll never experience. And long before I knew any dead people, or the ones they left behind, I knew that people like their dead relatives to be remembered; they want to talk about them; they want to hear their names in the world.

But my instinct is to avoid speaking the name, and I'm not quite sure why. I suppose one hesitates for fear that a grieving person will burst into hysterical weeping at the sound of his dead wife's name. Of course, it might happen, but 1) he's already quite aware of his wife's name, and 2) so what if he does? Where's the crime in hysterical weeping?

Or it could be that when someone dies you feel as if they've suddenly become sacred; that they've become the special property of the wife or family or dearest friend left behind, and it would be a sacrilege for you, Joe Schmo, to say their name aloud, in your undeserving voice.

I think that's what has sometimes kept me from saying the names of dead people to their grieving families; the fear of seeming presumptuous, of treading on sacred ground. But it certainly hasn't been my experience with my own dead; I have been pleased when people mentioned and asked about my dead parents, or my dead brother-in-law, or my dead son-in-law, or my dead old boyfriends. I love to talk about them. Even when they were newly dead, it gave me some pleasure, or comfort, to talk about them and the lives they lived.

There are cultures in which it's taboo to use the name of a dead person; they give the dead person a new name, or they simply don't use the name or even words that sound similar. Wikipedia says that the Maasai change the name of a dead person as soon as he dies. This supposedly keeps the dead person from answering when his name is spoken; but this probably isn't an issue with many of us here on the Cape.

Lots of dead people have things named after them. There are boulevards, ships, highway overpasses, prize competitions, intersections, schools, beaches, cities, buildings, conferences, stars, bacteria...you name it, something is named after someone dead.

But they tend to be people who were rich, or famous when living, or smarter than the average bear, or who died way too young. For the vast majority of Americans, our names are remembered either because they're chiseled into a hunk of granite in a cemetery somewhere, or because they've been bestowed on some unsuspecting infant.

Or because people remember us and talk about us. Being talked about isn't always desirable when you're alive; but once you're dead, you hope that you'll be remembered, or at least referenced, for another generation or two, before you and all you loved finally drift out over the sea and are gone.



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