1118: At My Funeral by Hélène Cardona

20240515 Slowdown

1118: At My Funeral by Hélène Cardona


I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.

In the past few years, I’ve lost several family members. In my bereavement, I’ve turned to reading poetry. One of the animating forces in art is death. For poets, overcoming that sense of time’s annihilation involves leaving a body of work, a corpus. Time may subsume our physical selves, but our presence can still be felt in individual poems, books, recorded performances, and broadsides. Our family can find consolation in our words, words that will hopefully give them calm, that will assuage anxieties about their own passage between life and death.

That’s the whole ars longa vita brevis thing. Every single one of us, while living, is, in some way, in the process of dying. My friend Kate facilitates a poetry writing workshop for people living with cancer; she reports it is one of the most moving honors of her life.

Ultimately, we do not know the experience of dying. We can only imagine. Artists, though, have fun playing with the mystery of what happens when we transition to no longer walking the earth in the flesh. From the Jerry Zucker movie “Ghost”, to Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” I have found special comfort in works that find a boldness in facing the inevitable.

A whole tradition exists of poets who write their own epitaphs or who write for others — words by which to remember someone, placed on a headstone or funeral program. As in Countee Cullen’s epitaph for his grandmother:

This lovely flower fell to seed;
Work gently sun and rain;
She held it as her dying creed
That she would grow again.

And my favorite is the tradition of poems that are instructions for care and celebration of the author once they have passed. These poems emphasize the celebration of a life, as in Ishmael Reed’s “When I Die I Will Go to Jazz”:

I want to spend eternity in
a place where they can swing it
No need for a Paradise where
anybody can wing it

Today’s poem, too, helps liberate us from our fears of death by imagining how we continue on, as a presence, on earth.

At My Funeral
by Hélène Cardona

Nothing is born or perishes, but already
existing things combine, then separate anew.

Somebody speaks at my funeral
but I am not dead. 
People love the eulogy,
can’t get enough.
It isn’t sad.
Water floods out of
nowhere, mingles with air
and the fluidity converts me from solid
to liquid to ether and back.
Cats saunter in the condensation. 
I see myself looking for them.
Finding all the cats means 
there is no death.

“At My Funeral” by Hélène Cardona from LIFE IN SUSPENSION © 2016 Hélène Cardona. Published by Salmon Poetry. Used by permission of the poet.