The gravedigger catches my eyes: his grizzled gray stubble and worn cap, the curly hank of yellow-gray hair riding his neck. Even in his mechanic’s fatigues, he looks like a monk I know— with the same hair and glasses, the same lean jaw. “I went from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll to chastity, poverty, and obedience,” the monk likes to quip.
On the drive back from New Jersey to North Carolina two days after my father’s passing, I remember: Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. I’ve owned it for twenty years. It’s one of those books that, when I purchased it, I felt I needed to read. I was the director of a small Center for Jewish Studies. And I was a poet, a Jewish poet. I needed the knowledge.
If you’ve been anywhere near the media in recent weeks, you’ve likely seen the archival photographs, indistinct and muddy, depicting the broken and blasted-out blocks that were all that was left of the city’s affluent Greenwood district—the “Black Wall Street”—after the mob was done with it. A mob that, as the reports tell us, included the Tulsa police force and the National Guard.
I’m living. I’m dying. I’m coming to an end. As I do, my wish is this: I’d like to stay awake, I’d like to pay attention as I live through the days between now and my last day at the university, between now and my last day, my last hour, my last human breath.
I’m thinking about Lefty because I worry about the growing disappearance of death—and by extension, the remembrance of death—from physical space in America. It’s not new: “Have you heard about the revolution in the funeral industry?” my brother the financial manager declared to me, years ago now—the growing preference for cremation over physical burial.
The reference is, of course, to Auden’s famous poem September 1, 1939. That poem contains the well-known line “we must love one another or die.” I say a well-known line, but that doesn’t really capture it now, does it? The line is more than well-known—it verges into the realm of sacred writings of our time, a scrap of prophecy left to us from the 20th century.