Happy Deaths

Happy Belated Hallow’s Eve and Feasts of All Saints and All Souls! Our town celebrates Halloween on two distinct days: the night before Halloween is devoted to trick-or-treating (our neighborhood is the most popular for some reason—we had over five hundred children come to our house), and then Halloween itself is reserved for an elaborate parade through downtown.  We participated minimally in the trick-or-treating, mostly handing out candy rather than seeking it. Instead of attending the parade on Halloween, we had a wonderful day hiking at a nearby state park called Pere Marquette, after the French Jesuit who navigated the Mississippi River. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to do something other than trick-or-treat— in this case to experience the autumnal splendor along the bluffs and in the river valley—on the Eve of All Saints.

Autumnal splendor in our yard.

On All Saints’ Day proper we went to pick up our new puppy, Dora. She is a beautiful silver labrador, eight-weeks-old when we brought her home. Among other reasons, we chose a silver lab because we love the story of St. John Bosco and the mysterious gray dog, which, for over thirty-years, would suddenly appear to protect him in times of danger. It seemed fitting, then, to bring home a gray dog on All Saints’ Day. Although silver isn’t quite the right label of her color, nor is gray. I’ve been enchanted by how well her coat blends with the color of the sticks she chews, or the rocks in the garden…in certain lights even the cement foundation of the porch. It’s because she has many flecks of tan in her.

Our puppy, Dora

The Halloween/All Saints/All Souls celebrations also coincided with my completion of the memoirs of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which she wrote in the late 1940’s. My most salient impressions and lessons from the book harmonized with the season; for, though it has many delightful and inspiring stories of music and their life as performers and immigrants, what struck me most about the book was the account of her husband Georg’s death. It was, despite its suddenness and suffering, a beautiful death. Maria describes the death for the reader by inserting the lengthy letter that she and the children wrote to their family and friends announcing his death. At the end of the letter, they justify its length and detail by writing, “He was a man whose taste was for the fundamental, the genuine, and the important things. What is more important than the ability to die well? In that he gave us a shining example that we cannot keep for ourselves.”

I do not want to spoil the book for those who might want to read it, but I will include a few excerpts from his death and funeral, which are so moving. Like his family, I don’t want to keep them for myself.

How terribly still it was in the room when the last death-rattle was silenced. The poor breast had its peace now, the brave heart stood still. In this holy silence Georg suddenly opened his eyes. The tortured features became calm and with an expression of endless wonder Georg gazed into another world. What may he have seen there? It must have been something indescribably beautiful. After about two minutes he nodded his head a little, and the dear eyes closed forever.”

Months before, not knowing that he was going to die soon, Georg had been musing to Maria about the kind of burial he wanted. He wanted to “sleep a day or two among you in the living room”  full of flowers from their property and with his favorite songs and prayers ushering him into the next life. After his death, Maria recalled the details of his daydream and she and the children dutifully fulfilled them:

Storms and rain were over; a brilliant blue spring sky arched over the world. We thought of the flowers. In the middle of the woods, where once a little farm had stood, we knew of a few wild apple trees. The boys brought a whole wagonful of enormous branches, and the living room was converted into a garden in bloom. In front of the chimney we hung a red brocade curtain. Then we brought our father down […] His face radiated such sublime dignity and beauty that one could not look long enough at it.”

After reading such descriptions, I have been thinking over what is meant by “happy death” ever since, and what kind of life leads to such an end. What a meaningful meditation to accompany the feasts of the dead, which in our culture today are so strangely morbid yet without ever truly confronting the reality of death.

In these thoughts, I was reminded of another memoir which I had read earlier in the summer, though never reported on here. Entitled A Two-Part Invention, it is the author Madeleine L’Engle’s reflection on her marriage of forty years as she experiences the illness and death of her husband. Her husband, too, I would say, died a happy death. He embraced his suffering and loved and was beloved throughout his life and in his death. Like Maria’s description of Georg, Madeleine’s image of her husband Hugh as he neared his death is luminous and beautiful.

I look at him, beautiful as an El Greco saint, for that is still the analogy that keeps coming to my mind. When I get home I look at a snapshot of the two of us together, Hugh’s face alert and alive. I observe and contemplate this child of love, made of the same stuff as galaxies and stars. And I know that the only meaning is love.”

Like Georg, Hugh was a man of faith and generosity, a noble spirit who delighted in beauty all around him, both in nature and art. He was a famous actor, yet totally humble. He and his wife worked hard at loving each other and their marriage was full of tenderness. Madeleine describes her longing for him at night when he is in the hospital, for the reassurance of his presence and vitality.

During the night I reach out with my foot through force of habit to touch his sleeping body. And he is not there. Nevertheless, we have been making love during this time in a profound way. He is making love with me in the pressure of his fingers. I am making love when I do simple little bodily services for him. How many times he has taken care of me! And that is intercourse as much as the more usual way of expressing our sexuality.”

Such true and tender eros! It reminds me that the goodness of these deaths is expressed not only in the dispositions of the dying, but in the reactions of those that have lost them. Clearly, these men both cultivated relationships and loved others in such a way as to enable their loved ones to experience beauty in their deaths, and to be comforted in their tragedy.

I am closing with a recording of one of Georg von Trapp’s favorite songs which he had imagined his family singing at his burial (and which they did sing). It is “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen” by Heinrich Isaac.

3 Comments

  1. A beautiful reflection, as always, Eva! That account of Georg’s death (and the music clip at the end) are so moving. Thank you for sharing.

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