Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
sharing their righteous anger; singing their righteous song
A woman dressed all in black steps out of a pew and onto an altar. She walks up to the podium, tears in her eyes, looks out at the church filled with people dressed in dark dresses and suits and down at the casket.
What will she do next?
Probably one of three things:
Sing (perhaps Amazing Grace)
Read a poem or a verse from scripture
Deliver a eulogy
From that scene, you most likely recognized that she was at a funeral. Dark clothes. Church (pew). Tears. And then of course the casket was a dead giveaway (no disrespect intended, though I confess that pun was intended)
And because we also interpret scenes first as probably relevant to our own times, you may have guessed that the woman was probably Meghan McCain.
(Notice that there is some choice. The scene doesn’t completely dictate the action. The speaker being the daughter makes it more likely to be a eulogy, but even then it could still be a reading. And even then she could choose to go off script and burst out in song or tears or a tirade)
This scene was the scene for Meghan McCain’s eulogy at her father John McCain’s funeral this past week, but I could have been describing the scene at my own father’s funeral (minus the casket) or at any number of other funerals in societies that follow this cultural tradition. Members of this culture recognize the ceremony, know what to expect, and know how to behave in response.
Yet every funeral is also unique, every situation particular, every eulogy different, even every reading of the same Biblical verse or singing of Amazing Grace performed by a specific voice to a specific group of people, the same and different.
That’s part of what’s fascinating about genre to me—always shared, always unique.
This past week gave us lots of examples, with funerals for both John McCain and the great Aretha Franklin. From those somewhat public events, we could have watched or read about similar yet different versions of the same ceremony and of the same genres. Both filled with tributes, memories, songs, readings, processions, and eulogies.
Both also included eulogies that were filled with political messages, a seemingly uncommon move in a eulogy, but not for such public, very politically active and powerful people as these two were. Like many others, I was struck in Meghan McCain’s eulogy by the degree of anger and reference to someone not in the room. That gained notice precisely because it isn’t common in a eulogy to make such strong statements about the political present or future. But lots of other commentators have written about the eulogies by Bush and Obama and especially Meghan McCain’s unusual and powerful speech
(Here’s one thing that stands out to me: One of the markers that this was something different is the audience’s behavior. We know how to behave at a funeral, especially one in a church, but the “mourners” at one point responded to McCain’s “eulogy” with applause, as an “audience” would to a “speech” at a political rally. We know genres by the actions of both sides—speakers and listeners, writers and readers, composers and audiences.)
Even without the markedly different tone of Meghan McCain’s eulogy, John McCain’s funeral would have been as unique and the same as every other funeral. The family in a procession of the hearse to the church, but this one with the widow, Cindy McCain, stopping to lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The eulogies that praised McCain, recited his life story, his strong character, and his love of family, and sought to comfort the mourners, just as eulogies do. Some but not all eulogies also serve as a call to action—to protest, or demand justice, or serve others or be kind to one’s fellow human beings. And only a rare few eulogies are delivered by former presidents of the United States.
One of those rare ones was delivered at Aretha Franklin's funeral. Aretha Franklin’s funeral, too, was at once unique and shared with other funerals. Her procession followed a remarkable hearse that previously carried Rosa Parks. Her casket was gold-plated bronze, and she wore Christian Louboutin red high heels; in other words, she was dressed in her finest, as usual. She had eulogies, too, like most, even if hers were delivered by former presidents, congresswomen, attorneys general, along with actors and comedians and sociology professors! She had musical performances, too, like most funerals, but what exceptional performances. Very few funerals include singing by Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight. Her mourners, too, were boisterous, not just applauding but offering a standing ovation for Rep. Maxine Waters and hearing a "Wakanda Forever!" salute from the movie "Black Panther." But even with all that marvelousness and all that respect for the individual that was Aretha Franklin, people were recognizably participating in a funeral.
These famous funerals of famous people are unique, but they are also shared, recognizable in their genres as funerals with eulogies, processions, music. Every funeral we attend is unique, not just those of the famous. We share this tradition of mourning in our culture through the traditional genres—especially the eulogy—each adapted to the particular situation of this particular death and its mourners. One comforts with Christian prayers, another with Buddhist, another with reminders of a life well lived. One praises the person’s generosity, another their perseverance. One speaks to the family, another to the family of friends. Some participants sit in silence, some call out their agreement or grief. All are funerals. All mourn the loss and celebrate the life of the deceased and comfort the living.
Most have eulogies (certainly there is variation here, too, as some specific Jewish and other traditions avoid eulogies). Rare is the eulogy that trashes the person’s character, though it can and does happen. Hagiography, though, is a genre much more in evidence these day. In death, only the good is to be shared publicly. I can’t think of any genres that have developed to let people vent about the rotten person after they’ve died. Group therapy, maybe? (mostly kidding)
But there are many, many more genres surrounding the ceremonlializing of a death. This list doesn’t pretend to be complete but just to suggest the range and prompt your own additions:
Through learning these genres, we learn the traditions of our cultures, and we recognize the markers of their scenes.
We learn what actions to expect in that scene, and we learn what behaviors are expected in response. (Any of which we could resist or reject, including choosing not to attend, with expected consequences.)
In any particular situation, any particular funeral or card or eulogy, we notice most what is unique each time, because what is shared can ground us without our needing to be aware of it. We send a sympathy card easily, but struggle to write the sympathy note that captures this particular person we knew. If we're reading the sympathy card, we take special note of who's writing and what their particular relationship was with our loved one. We attend the funeral and notice the music that reminds us of the person or maybe the music that surprises us. We listen to the eulogies and nod in agreement, laugh at shared memories, and shed tears in shared loss.
But if we’re writing the eulogy, we struggle to find the specific stories that depict what we most love about this particular person, that will do justice to the life they lived. Whether that’s through sharing their righteous anger or singing their righteous song.
Because we all share our traditions, our genres, our humanity. And we all have our specific situations, our particular ways of acting, our unique being.
And in times like these, we can see the importance of honoring both.