How I dreaded the “visitation.” Having to see my father’s dead body. Having to meet and greet well-wishers while being in a highly emotional state. What a horrible ordeal this is going to be, I thought. And yet, the visitation on Thursday night was strangely healing. I’m not sure why, but it was. I do have some ideas, though.
The Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote about the relationship between an “I” and a “thou.” That is, between two persons. This is very different from the relationship between an “I” and an “it.” Sometimes we treat other human beings as if they were “its”; that is, as objects rather than persons, and this is a moral fault. I believe Buber also used the example of the difference between a live human being and the body of that person after death. The “thou” is replaced by an “it.” The living human being with a personality and an energy and a soul gives way to an inanimate–or rather, no longer animated–material. When we see the body of a loved one, we look upon it with affection, but also with the sense that “this isn’t him.” What made him who he was is gone. This amounts to a perception of the immortality of his soul. Not a rigid proof, I know, but a kind of palpable conviction. And it’s comforting.
Also, the death of a father causes us to look back on our own lives, remembering our childhood, our adult life, and our own mortality; that is, to look at our lives as a whole. It was so good to see people from my own history coming back to my awareness as they came to pay their respects to my father. Here was a woman who was the teenaged girl who used to babysit me. Here were members of our old neighborhood, former kids I used to play with. Here were high school buddies, and we slipped back into the same old comfortable banter we shared over four decades ago. I also met friends of my father’s whom I really didn’t know but whom I now see are interesting, thoughtful, witty men and women, like he was. It was just all good.