Archive for Sunday, May 28, 2006

Deliver the eulogy before the death

May 28, 2006


Here's my plan for cheating death.

Don't expect some miracle formula, or a map from Ponce de Leon, or even a carton of yogurt from a faraway corner of Central Asia.

This is a plan to cheat death of one of its richest harvests.

I'm speaking here of the eulogy, the ancient art form in which family members or friends or prominent figures stand before a grieving audience and a coffin and talk fondly, passionately, sadly and lovingly about the person who has just died. I was at one of these sessions, full of flowing rhetoric and springs of tears, this month and I kept thinking: What a waste.

What a waste that it takes the death of our friends and relatives for us to reflect on how much they mattered to us. What a waste that these reminiscences are said in sadness and grief rather than in joy. What a waste that the subject of all these recollections isn't standing right in front of us as we make them.

Put aside for the moment your private thoughts about the afterlife and even the sentiment, almost always voiced at such gatherings, that the person being celebrated somehow heard what we had to say about him. These are topics for another day in another forum led by another discussion leader.

But somehow Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago columnist, struck a poignant chord when he spoke in 1979 of the death of his wife of a brain aneurysm: "If there's someone you love but haven't said so in a while, say it now. Always, always, say it now."

Now another great columnist of that era, the humorist Art Buchwald, is inadvertently cobbling together a new art form. It's the pre-death eulogy.

Mr. Buchwald, who is 80 years old, is dying of kidney failure. He's in a hospice in Washington and is a modern-day Maccabee - but instead of finding, as those Hebrew warriors did in ancient times, that the one day's worth of oil lasted for eight days' worth of light, he's finding that the three weeks the doctors gave him have turned into almost four months. Think of it as a late spring Hanukkah gift to him and to his friends, for it is that holiday in the Jewish calendar that marks the miracle of the Maccabees and their oil.

And so for all that time, Mr. Buchwald, who is supposed to be dead and whose eulogies were supposed to have been written and delivered already, is basically getting to hear these tributes while he is still alive. "He gets to hear all the wonderful things people have to say about him, and he's still here," says Cathy Crary, his assistant. "What a plan!"

Only it wasn't really a plan at all. It was just the way things turned out. I called up Mr. Buchwald the other day, and he said in essence that this was the way to go - a pretty good line, one I bet he wished he had written himself.

"People are coming and telling me how much they liked me," he said. "They are very happy they don't have to do it at a funeral."

In truth, what Mr. Buchwald is doing is holding court every day in the halls of the Washington Home and Hospice. He has visitors and takes calls, and he tells everyone he encounters that he's not dead yet and that he's not going to heaven just now. Or, as he put it in a Washington Post piece he wrote this month about this strange phenomenon: "I never realized dying was so much fun."

(Not that there weren't some disadvantages, he allowed. He was disappointed that, because he was not dead, he "had to start worrying about Bush again.")

But Mr. Buchwald likes this proposal for cheating death of the eulogy. "The nicest thing, as a matter of fact, is hearing all this nice stuff now," he said.

He's heard a lot of nice things, and that's the way to pave our path from earthly life. Mr. Royko had it right, and now Mr. Buchwald has it right. The eulogy ought to precede death, not follow it.

That way we could tell our spouses and our children that they matter more to us than our jobs, more to us than anything, really. That way we could tell the people who inspired us that they live on in the work we do, however imperfectly we follow their example and their advice. That way we could tell our friends that they enriched and ennobled our lives, for surely they did.

That way Neville Chamberlain might have heard what his political (but not personal) rival said of him in the House of Commons after he died some 14 months after the beginning of the war he tried so hard and so ham-handedly to avoid:

"Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged."

Soon the Buchwald salon will move to Martha's Vineyard. Mr. Buchwald's doctors have told him he should plan to travel to his beloved summer island retreat in Massachusetts. Death has not caught him yet.

Carly Simon, one of Martha's Vineyard's most remarkable natural resources, was planning to sing at Mr. Buchwald's memorial service. Now she's going to sing in front of him. Maybe she'll sing "Haven't Got Time for the Pain." Or maybe, adapted to reflect how Mr. Buchwald is departing life, "That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be."

Mr. Buchwald sounded weak on the telephone and so we didn't linger on the line. But he had one final question: When is this column going to run?

"Send it to me," he said. "I'll be around to see it."

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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