Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York, where this piece was first published.
As children, death was frightening and foreign; we were taken to faraway towns where relatives had died, but thought too young and impressionable to actually attend the funeral or see the deceased. The first body I ever saw in a casket was when I was a sophomore in high school. It was the father of a friend. The next one I saw was my own father.
We were asked whether we wanted an American flag draped over his coffin. It was his due; he had served during World War II as an Army medical supply officer and like so many of his generation the war had been a turning point in his life.
But in 1971, it was unusual for someone who hadn't made a career in the military to have a flag covering his casket. Plus, the Vietnam War still raged and the flag was a symbol with a lot of emotional and political baggage. Toward the end of Dad's life, Republican though he was, he actually had come to oppose what was happening in Southeast Asia.
A compromise was reached. During calling hours, a portly member of the American Legion or VFW, in Eisenhower jacket and campaign cap, marched into the funeral parlor and stiffly handed my slightly startled mother a flag, folded in a proper military triangle and encased in plastic. I never saw it again.
Since then, many other funerals, many memorial events for the passing of friends and family. There seem to be more lately, especially in the last year or two; a function of my age and that of colleagues and acquaintances perhaps. But with the passing of time, they somehow seem less morbid and forbidding, less occasions of childish dread than celebrations of lives well led.
Because I work in the media and entertainment business, these memorials often are executed with a certain show biz flair and joie de vivre. I have been to one or two at Lincoln Center, a couple at Sardi's, the Theater District eatery, and one, for a well-known novelist, that seemed to go on longer than "Cats," with singers, chamber music and a cameo appearance by Kitty Carlisle Hart. All it lacked was a flyover by the Blue Angels.
In 1994, when Karen Morgan, the wife of humorist Henry Morgan died—just weeks after Henry's passing—her memorial was held on the roof of the St. Regis Hotel, a great Beaux-arts monument in midtown. As stipulated in her will, those of us in attendance were serenaded by a Margaret Dumont-like diva who sang the Edwardian ditty, "There Are Fairies at the Bottom of My Garden," a song famously made fun of by the British comedienne Bea Lillie. It was Karen's final great joke, delivered from beyond.
In London last week, I attended a moving and joyous memorial for the author and theater critic Sheridan Morley, husband of my longtime friend Ruth Leon, herself a writer, critic and producer. It was at the Gielgud Theater in London's West End, packed with friends and associates. On stage, 20 or so sat at small cafe tables, coming to the microphones to speak or sing when called upon in the program.
For an American like me, especially someone who has worked for public television for so many years, it was a bit like watching "Masterpiece Theatre" come to life. So many of those on stage were familiar faces from British television dramas that have crossed the Atlantic. I counted at least three who've played Edward VIII. I've come to think that performing the role of the Duke of Windsor in the U.K. is like playing Lincoln over here. Or Nixon.
They told the story of Sheridan's life in words and music, everything from an early school report card ("He is the oldest ten-year-old we have ever met... have seldom seen him move on the sports field.") to a brief dissertation on his bellicose telephone habits from journalist Miles Kington, painstakingly read by the actor Edward Fox ("[Sheridan] believed the telephone carried voices over distance. But he was not sure how far. So he took no chances.")
A few days before, his widow Ruth and I had dinner and talked about the nature of funerals and memorials. She had just been to yet another the afternoon before and when I commented on how many we seemed to be attending of late she reminded me that, in fact, this was nothing new. Just twenty-five years ago, many male friends and colleagues of ours were beginning to die from AIDS. I recalled the first of them, in 1982, when the disease still had no familiar name and everyone thought it was some rare kind of pneumonia.
Then I remembered 9/11 and the constant memorials that followed. No one I knew directly died; but there were friends of friends and relatives of friends and, in one case, the husband of a college girlfriend. For a while, at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, a funeral mass would begin immediately as another ended, the flag-covered coffins of firemen and police moving up and down the stairs, an assembly line of grief.
And now, of course, Iraq. As we marked Memorial Day this week, the Associated Press reported that, "Americans have opened nearly 1000 new graves to bury U.S. troops killed in Iraq since Memorial Day a year ago. The figure is telling—and expected to rise in coming months."
With the surge, we are more vulnerable, more exposed. "We're out there on the streets a lot more," the Brooking Institution's Michael O'Hanlon told the AP. "There are more patrols going on every day, so we're more open to attacks."
Since 2003, when this war began, nearly 3500 Americans, brave and good and true, have died. To what end?
No funny songs or reminiscences will bring them back. And yet, attention must be paid.
So many caskets, so many flags. Too many memorials.
And too little point.