S2E10 Funerals

The June 2019 funeral of Paul Johnson

Joe sees the world in the time after the apocalypse, in a world without funerals.


For at least two decades, I’ve had this end-of-the-world fantasy. I base it on Night of the Comet, a 1984 movie about two Valley Girl sisters who survive the annihilation of humanity. After the comet, they have free reign of the streets and stores of Los Angeles. They even, despite zombie scientists, manage to find love. By the end, it’s their responsibility to rebuild civilization. I envy their freedom—no debts, no work hours, no possessions. And, too, I envy their ability to determine what is worth saving. They get to start over and hold onto only those things that matter. It’s a variation of one of my favorite childhood movies, 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson. After the catastrophe comes the freedom of paradise.

Those are the optimistic apocalypses. Nearly every other apocalypse movie I’ve seen describes—in Mad Max style—a world that devolves into a new feudalism or something much worse. These apocalypse moves—whether Escape from New York, Waterworld, or Cyborg—are new westerns: clans of predatory men who ravage people and resources, who exploit the weak, and who can only be defeated by some powerful hero with a vendetta or an innate sense of righteousness.

I’ve tried to write an apocalypse story. It always fails. But I find that each attempt leads me to an entirely different question. An existential question I can’t seem to shake. Is it better to be taken by the apocalypse or to live on only to die alone in the after-mess? By which I mean, would I rather die peacefully in my sleep or on a falling jetliner surrounded by other people? Would I rather die of some private cancer or sit on a park bench with others to watch the world end? Like in that other 1980s apocalypse movie, The Day After. The mushroom clouds, the nuclear blast, the fire that consumes.

Apocalypse movies begin with the bulk of humanity, countless billions, coming to a collective end. Skylab sends out the terminators. An alien invasion incinerates nations. The big ending is the beginning of the apocalypse movie. The apocalypse movie is really about what comes next—the post-world and the protagonist navigating it. The way people no longer suffer as a whole. Every person has a separate fate, a separate destiny, a separate experience of survival. Some are fabulously wealthy and powerful. Most are fodder and food.

This weekend, Portland feels like summer. It’s warm and lovely and green. The birds are choirs. Bumblebees pop from flower to flower. The rabbits are back—multiple incarnations of the same brown bunny in the bushes across the street, in the park, by our driveway tree. There is, too, the buzz, the sense that the world is moving into some new phase.

Yes, all the news is the same news, but it is not the same news for everyone. If you live in Germany, you have different news than Alabama or Italy. If you live in South Dakota, you have different news than Sweden or South Africa. If you are wealthy, you have different news than the poor. If your skin is dark, you have different news than those who have light skin—the people for whom a neighborhood jog is not lethal. The collective story of the Plague is becoming the separate stories of the movie hero. Every one of us our own franchise.

For a few weeks, humanity had a shared story. And now, as movie theaters and hair salons open in some states, as bars and restaurants open in others, we are back to doing our own things. We risk some people and protect others. We have grown bored of one another. We have tired of cooperation. There is, perhaps, only so much solidarity we can have. The apocalypse moves from the end of the world to the world after the end. And maybe it reveals that the cooperation, unity, shared purpose, and common resolve were all illusions. Maybe we were never really in this together.

Today, I am thinking of funerals. My Great Uncle Jerry died this week in a nursing home, a new kind of lonely—a denied dignity. Jerry did not get, as he deserved, anything so normal and humane as family at the end of 82 years. He isn’t getting a funeral. At least not anytime soon.

Which makes me think of the funeral I last went to—a year ago for my uncle Paul. Uncle Paul’s funeral afforded something that only funerals offer: that point when people connected to one another realize, for a moment, how disconnected they have become. A funeral, more than any wedding, is about connection. It’s the place where we try to plan out ways to, this time, stay in better touch. I laugh and talk much more at funerals—or, at least, after them—than I ever do at weddings.

The Plague has taken many gatherings. Students lament graduation ceremonies. Two people I know have already altered their weddings. And then, birthdays. My niece and stepdaughter both turned 21 in quarantine. On Saturday, I did an eight-hour round trip for my son’s 14th birthday. I stood outside. I felt uncomfortable being within six feet of him.

These are true losses, and I don’t mean to diminish them. But all of these things, as unfortunate as they are, do not compare to the loss of funerals. They do not compare to the isolation in hospitals and nursing homes. In all of my fantasies about surviving the apocalypse or being collectively lost to it, I did not imagine this other scenario: for people to die alone and together, the worst of both experiences.

There is a special cruelty to it. And it reminds me of Sylvia Plath, how her mother, in order to protect the young girl when her father died, did not allow any of the Plath children to the funeral. Rather than sparing the girl, the choice seems to have damned her. She grows obsessed with death. She lives her short life feeling betrayed. She has no sense of acceptance. Her father becomes a ghost. He abandons her. He leaves her alone. Maybe he is still alive and just doesn’t want her anymore. Plath never got to see her father one last time. She never saw him lowered into the ground. Plath’s career is famously tormented by obsessions with her father and with death. In a poem written two weeks before her own death, Plath cannot shake this loss. She describes a heaven that is “fatherless.”

I am not romanticizing funerals. Rather, I am recognizing this moment in which the Plague has taken on a new character or—rather—exposed our character. As groups gather to wave flags and rifles to declare their personal sovereignties, I cannot help but think of how fragile solidarity truly is and how rare shared moments of concern are. Plagues, like wars, reveal us: they show us opportunities to join our resources for a common good, though like westerns and apocalypse movies, it takes little time for clans to form, leaving us longing for some Hollywood ending: the saving hero to come in. But that—the hero—is the real fantasy. There is no Jean Claude Van Damme Cyborg coming to save us. There are no Avengers. There is only us, creatures capable of saving worlds or destroying them. Creatures equipped with the ability to recognize the dignity of the individual or to collapse into rants and lawsuits about our rights to assembly. Perhaps I would be more sympathetic to the protests if their concern was human dignity, if their outrage was about people like Uncle Jerry who had to die alone—no child or priest permitted bedside.

The apocalypse has already happened. We are the people left behind. And already, the first chance we get, we run our separate directions, chasing our private storylines, abandoning the sense of humanity or shared responsibility or collective sacrifice. Each of us to our own path, each to our own story.

Like after a funeral, on the car ride home, and the conversation about how nice it was to see Aunt Sylvia again and we really should get to Boise to visit. Then the glance at the calendar. The look at the bank account. The question of what to get for dinner. And then, the unspoken understanding that only another funeral will bring the family back together.

By Joe Johnson

Joe lives in Portland. He writes. Some of it is good. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing through the Rainier Writing Workshop (at Pacific Lutheran University).

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