We live in a society that has given up strict rituals. As a result, we’ve had a joyous explosion of life-affirming rites in our favorite locations, but it also means that we may have lost something, especially when it comes to death. Not so much our own deaths, but those of the people we love (if we are fortunate enough to survive them). As Miriam Weinstein puts it in what can only be described as a hilarious how-to book about the hard work of mourning, “[W]e will remake our lives without our beloved ones, our supports, our buddies, again and again. . . Even if it is ‘expected,’ when it happens, it hits us over the head like a mallet blow. Sure, some things help, but not always the things we expect.”
In earlier times, we might have had strict rituals to fall back on, and Weinstein describes some of them: funeral traditions that require burial within 24 hours of death; embalming for a wake with an open casket. In our multicultural society we don’t have a shared way of grief. Some people have funerals, ending at the grave side; others have memorial services days, weeks or even months after the death. We no longer announce we’re in mourning by our clothing.
What to do when the old rites and rituals may not be followed? In Weinstein’s case, what seems to help most is humor, and it’s our good fortune that she’s decided to explore mourning experiences in brief chapters that cover topics such as burial or cremation, flowers and candles when a celebrity has died, how much stuff to take when you’re in a position to take it (not much), and the experience of grieving.
Weinstein opens with a chapter on what to wear to a funeral. Looking good, she argues, “can make you feel good, and feeling good can make you look good” adding that such obvious truths can be forgotten in times of extremis. She winds up with a story about a woman who nursed a dear friend through a final illness “and then missed the actual moment of death because she was in the mall, buying something to wear to her funeral.” Better to have something in your closet, and navy, gray, or black will all do. It should be comfortable and appropriate for the weather, Weinstein adds – and then proceeds to adjust the advice for funerals in Florida (where few people wear black, even to a funeral). Weinstein adds a quick exegesis on Victorian mourning costumes and ends the chapter with a couple of paragraphs about what to do with the outfit once you’ve worn it to a funeral that’s a gut-wrenching life-changer.
There’s a helpful chapter on how to write and deliver a eulogy (give yourself as much time as possible, don’t worry about sounding dumb, and don’t ignore whatever elephant happens to be in the room). There’s a chapter on the post-cremation afterlife of the ashes. And there’s a chapter on how to find your way through the days and weeks and months after the death of a close family member. Weinstein says:
So the first thing you might want to do is to be kind to yourself. Help yourself over the immediate hump. And then help yourself over the next one. And the next one after that. Just don’t look for easy solutions. I had a very well-bred aunt who said, ‘Whenever you are thinking of saying bullshit, just say fantastic.’ So:
The five stages of grief are fantastic.
The arbitrary time markers around any sort of resolution of feelings are fantastic.
The idea that you will move forward in a straight line toward ‘resolution’ is fantastic….
All in all, it’s very sensible advice. There are a lot of jokes sprinkled throughout the text, and episodes that will resonate with readers differently. The old cliche says “it will make you laugh, it will make you cry.” “All Set for Black” does that, too, and readers may find themselves laughing through tears (be prepared for the odd looks if you happen to read the book on the subway). Not all readers will be comfortable with the irrepressibly irreverent tone of this book, and Weinstein’s voice occasionally cloys, but if you’re drawn to humor, it’s as good a guide as any I’ve seen to mourning.
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Miriam Weinstein is reading at the Stein Senior Center on Monday, November 7, 2016 at 1 pm.