Such a triumvirate of memento mori that was, all in the space of two months or less: the first the announcement of the dreaded Diagnosis (two of them, in fact, one in my husband’s family and one in mine); then the request to serve as Power of Attorney and Personal Agent (albeit the requester was still in excellent health); and somewhere in between, a book fell off the shelf into my hands — The Good Funeral by Thomas Long, theologian, and Thomas Lynch, funeral director. Clearly, I needed to pay attention.
Given my age and my status as the youngest in my family, I was not surprised that I should be reminded so directly and repeatedly that we are not immortal. That comes with the territory of post-retirement years. What did surprise, and continues to surprise, was a startling reversal of one of my assumptions, thanks to The Good Funeral. The book has much wisdom to offer on all kinds of matters, particularly the North American evasion of all reminders of death and the strange banishment of the body from all public displays of grief, limited as those displays now are. That cultural analysis I had encountered before. But I had never seriously questioned the commonly used phrase “I don’t want to be a burden.” Indeed, I had said it myself, if not so bluntly.
An understandable sentiment, surely an appropriate recognition of our dignity. Being a burden means becoming dependent on others who, presumably, have better things to do with their time than care for us. The agony of giving up a driver’s license, for example, lies in the coming horror of having to ask others for rides, to the grocery store, to church, to a friend’s home, unless public transit is readily available. And if physical mobility has become a challenge, then even public transit ceases to be an option. Any and all disabilities, including mental deterioration, can turn us into a “burden.”
How have we come to use such language? “Burden,” as a friend pointed out to me, “is such a negative word. It gathers in weight and awkwardness and struggle, all of it unwanted.” Human “burdens” claim time and emotional energy — to do errands, to help with chores, to listen, make appointments, assume legal responsibilities, change bed linen. There’s no assigned contract limit for such a commitment to bear the weight of another’s physical weaknesses and hold in one’s mind and heart an immeasurable emotional heaviness. Patience is required, abundant patience, which is another way of saying that one’s own interests and choices must be set aside.
Being afraid of making such claims on others seems understandable, yet shouldn’t we think more clearly about the very nature of our relationships before insisting, instinctively, that we will not be a burden to anyone? What virulent strain of individualism has persuaded us that we can get through life without being a burden or without carrying a burden?
But then, I hadn’t even questioned the concept of burdensomeness until I read The Good Funeral. Thomas Lynch caught my attention with his musings about how the first human death might have been experienced: suppose the woman wakes up to find her partner unresponsive, cold — what is she to do? In a warm climate, she will soon know that the unresponsive one will have to be removed or she will have to find another cave for herself. Whether she elects to leave the body to the animals and birds or to bury it or to push it off a cliff into the sea, she will have to accompany the body to its last resting place. As Lynch imagines it, “maybe she enlists the assistance of others of her kind in the performance of these duties who do their part sensing that they may need exactly this kind of help in the future” (57, italics mine). From then on, Lynch argues, human beings are human precisely in their ritual responses to death, rituals in which people, in a community, care for the grieving ones and dispose of the body with due respect.
In his incisive rejection of the concept of preplanning funerals — to avoid “being a burden to your family” — Lynch points out a simple fact I hadn’t considered carefully enough: just as our children were once a burden to us in the sense of needing to be fed and carried and changed and trained, etc., so too will those children carry the weight of others as they grow older, first their own children and then their parents. Quite apart from the parent-child relationship, human beings thrive only in community and that entails taking on some burdens for others and becoming a burden to others. Of such is humanity. To pretend that we can manage our affairs so precisely that we never need the help of anyone whom we haven’t already paid, for professional help, is foolish, and deprives others of their turn to practice compassion, that most human of all qualities.
As I thought about my own experiences with elderly parents and parents-in-law, I recalled that the easiest carrying out of commitments with their emotional weight occurred when those receiving the assistance were willing and gracious. The more we protest that we don’t want to be a burden, and stubbornly insist on struggling to maintain ourselves, the more difficult we make it for those who will inevitably have to provide assistance anyway. It’s no use trying to deny others their chance to show tenderness and fulfil their calling as part of the human family. We are connected, whether we acknowledge that or not.
Isn’t it time that we simply accepted the weight of being a human being? Then perhaps we can carry that weight with all the dignity that becomes those who stand a little lower than the angels, who, we are told, know nothing of the glory of bearing burdens.
Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.