By dying first, Eudel has become the father and I the son. As the son, I must now learn from him instead of him learning from me. And the lesson must be learned!Rev. Livingstone David Marcelin, Eudel’s father
Eudel Sheban Vadim Marcelin was born on November 2, 2018. Three and half months later, on February 16, 2019, he breathed for the last time and died. Stephanie, his mother, had put her body through extreme discomfort and heart-wrenching pain for six and a half months, even refusing her doctor’s recommendation to abort. She was determined to bring her son into life.
On Friday, February 22, 2019, funeral preparations are in full swing. Now is time for the viewing. Eudel’s mother, father, sister, brother, and grandmother, along with a couple of close friends, myself included, arrive at Bennie Smith Funeral Home in Seaford, Delaware. Several workers welcome us and let us in through a set of double doors leading to a parlor. To our right stands another set of doors which open to a small chapel filled with empty chairs.
There in front of the room, stretches a small white coffin and there lies Eudel.
He has a full head of curly, black hair. For a boy who spent a mere few hours breathing on his own, he has a perfect little nose; it is perfectly centered between his jaw bones, offering balance and a bit of life to his closed eyes and lips. Two little ears complete the face, a face seen by many but known only to a select few. Apart from his face, no other part of Eudel is visible. He is wearing a chic cream-colored suit whose sleeves and pant legs extend just beyond his fingertips and toes. Nevertheless, he is well suited for the occasion. That is to be expected. His mother will not have it any other way. Upon entering the room, Stephanie quickly finds her way around the little box. Her eyes swelling with tears, she reaches in. Methodically, she touches her son’s hair and little face. She examines him closely. Pointing to a tiny whitish spot on Eudel’s right nostril, “What is that?” she asks the funeral home worker, a somber yet gentle lady standing nearby. The lady casts a glance but does not seem to understand. “That was not there before,” Stephanie insists, “I did not see this the last time I saw him.” The worker responds patiently and conciliatorily, “We’ll have the mortician take another look.”
Stephanie continues her meticulous examination of her son’s body. She seems to know where everything ought to be. She’s ready to fix anything with any hint of being out of place. She touches Eudel’s arms and feet. She adjusts his tux so ever carefully. The tears keep pouring out and she jerks briskly from the emotions. Two things become extremely clear: her agony and her sense of duty. She is suffering, and she is proud to present her son to the world. She wants him to look his best. That is understandable as Eudel had spent almost every minute of his life at the hospital. He was intubated the entire time except for the last few moments. His doctors had reached the end of their abilities. Few people had had the privilege to see him alive.
Livingstone and Stephanie’s own mother try to console her, offering to help her to a chair. “No!” she retorts forcefully, “I need to check him out!” And so, she does. Two small toys find their way into the little box. One of them, a little white bunny, was given to Eudel for Christmas – his first Christmas gift – the coffin is now a playpen.
At six years old, Livi, Eudel’s big sister, is clearly trying to understand. She knows that her little brother is dead. She tells me that much. She seems to understand that she will not see him anymore. Lael, the eldest of the three, has a better grasp of the situation. He is looking for some connection with Eudel. He wants to touch his little brother. He is upset to hear that it may not be safe to do so. The news leaves him sad and confused.
If the viewing looks like a preparation, the funeral service feels a lot like the main event. But it is a family affair all the same. At one point, a minister asks the family to stand next to Eudel for prayer. The picture is perfect now: Eudel will forever be part of this family. He will always have a mother and a father in Stephanie and Livingstone, a big sister in Livi, and a big brother in Lael. The program for the event is very telling. Eudel’s full name, Eudel Sheban Vadim Marcelin, appears at the very top – in bold. His birthday and deathday follow. Underneath figure three letter cubes. The letters B and C, askew, are touching together at one end and the letter A is stacked on top of the two. Two maracas hover on either side of the cubes. A ribbon tied in the shape of a butterfly sits in the center of each maraca. Against the background of sinuous clouds, they give the impression that the entire scene is in flight, in the sky. The date of the service along with the location information follow but they are wrapped around a brown teddy bear sporting a blue top inscribed with the words, “It’s a boy.” Little footprints can be seen both inside and on the back of the program.
The turnout for the funeral is overwhelming. The church looks completely full. The whole affair feels like a worship service, the presence of the little white coffin notwithstanding. Just as with Eudel’s appearance, Stephanie takes lead of the service. Flanked by a worship team, she sings, praises, weeps, and worships. And the people follow suit. It feels like her final push to honor her son. She cannot bring him back to life, but just as when she was carrying him in her womb, she surrounds him with her own warmth and life.
The human response to death constitutes a distinctively vulnerable yet profound way of being in the world. The experience of the death of a loved one, for instance, can activate an unexpected awareness of the self as self and of the other as self. It can engender empathy in a way unseen in everyday experience. In this, the experience of death, or of the dead, may serve as a point of contact between the self and the other. Death need not function as a mere barrier to life or as an intellectual aporia. The desire for something more in the face of death, which is inescapable to the living as living, does not necessarily abrogate the possibilities of something more in the here and now. Viewed phenomenologically, this desire can serve as bridge between the self and the other, serving to link actuality to potentiality, and transforming what is into what can or ought to be. In effect, the experience of death can be meaning-full and even constructive. As a human event, it can inspire new ways of thinking and being in the world. This leads to a consideration of death as a constituent of liminality, where liminality means possibility.
Livingstone, Eudel’s father, insists on this point in his words during his son’s funeral. Something extra-ordinary happens in their relationship. “A son is supposed to outlive his father,” he ponders, holding back tears. “As Eudel’s father, I am supposed to teach him, and he is supposed to learn from me.” By dying first, Livingstone proposes further, the son becomes the father and the teacher. “Now I must take the time to learn what he is teaching me… And the lesson must be learned!”
“The human response to death constitutes a distinctively vulnerable yet profound way of being in the world.”
To envision death as liminality does not deny the overwhelming anxiety and fear that accompany the experience thereof. Anthropologist Ernest Becker, who published extensively on death, writes, “This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression and with all this yet to die” (Becker xii).
Humans respond to this feeling of terror in at least two ways, Becker further asserts. They generally repress it in an attempt to force it into the unconscious. They may also combat it by way of a “hero system” which, in the words of philosopher Sam Keen, “allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth” (xiii). It is not surprising then that the management of death plays a significant role in the world’s religions. Many people turn to religion especially because of death or at times of death, in search of equipment for something they perceive as a threatening passage. The ability to control death then is constitutive of the greatest heroes by linking them to the source of life itself, construed as the divine.
Christianity, in particular, rests the entirety of its validity on the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. For the apostle Paul, Christian faith is made possible and is born from the demise of death, death being, in Paul’s eschatology, “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1Cor15:26). So, Paul can proclaim that, in the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (55) Therefore, the “sting” of death, which is the result of sin, is no more; it is defeated. He argues further in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19,
If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Thus, for Paul, death is to be interpreted negatively, tout court! His words clearly influence societal attitudes toward death today. Death takes the form of a “complex symbol” (Wahl 25-26, cited in Becker) that is mitigated by yet another symbol, that of Jesus as the Christ. One of the speakers at Eudel’s funeral grounds his entire speech on this point.
A phenomenological approach to death must resist the temptation to jump from death to resurrection in one fell swoop. It must problematize the practice of painting death as humanity’s nemesis. Rushing from death to life, especially eternal life, risks dismissing the very human elements involved in the experience of death. More than that, it risks giving a place of ultimacy to a phenomenon that is of preliminary concern. Taking seriously the cry of the crucified, or giving voice to the sufferers of history, as a matter of justice, calls for serious consideration of the events surrounding concrete lived experience, including death. The eschatological has no meaning without the lived. What can the denial of death teach except further fear and anxiety? But an eschatology that takes death seriously also takes life seriously here and now – in the body. Death may be an abstract concept that is amenable to symbolic language, but the experience of death happens in the body. It is concrete. Both life and death are experienced in the body.
The living and the dying are one on the way to death. However, at death, at the end of conscious and conscionable existence, speaking of life becomes unreasonable. Yet the dead cannot be said to be experiencing death, that is, their own death. If they could, they would not be deemed dead but living. Thus, only the living can have concrete knowledge of death, and it is always the death of someone or something else. The living and the dead are thus united because only a living body can experience death. This unity takes a literal form in the case of a miscarriage or still birth, where a woman’s uterus doubles as womb and tomb, if only temporarily. The experience of death is a life event. As such, it is pregnant with possibility, including the possibility of love.
In Stephanie’s care of her son, no fear is perceivable. When Livingstone and Lael help carry Eudel’s coffin back to the hearse, no anxiety is visible. What is undeniable is the love they feel for their loved one and the longing his absence will leave in their hearts. Eudel’s death in fact puts on display some of the most wonderful qualities of human relationships, such as communal mourning and sharing, and ritual suffering in solidarity with the family. The kind of gentleness and generosity generally exhibited around death, I would argue, are rarely seen in any other context. Death is an event: it has its look but understood as perception, however hideous. It has its words, its songs, its colors, its mood. Death is a miracle; it is power, not in spite of suffering, but because of it. It can catalyze all sorts of personal and socio-cultural reactions.
“The experience of death is a life event. As such, it is pregnant with possibility, including the possibility of love.”
The story of Emmett Till is a case in point. Two white men murder the fourteen-year-old boy in Money, Mississippi in 1955 after a white woman falsely accuses him of making sexual advances toward her. According to DeNeen L. Brown of the Washington Post, Emmett’s body was, “tortured, shot, wrapped in a barbed wire attached to a 75-pound fan.” His head had been crushed and one of his eyes had “gouged out.” The perpetrators of this heinous crime would later confess to the brutal murder, an act for which they had apparently received the sum of $4,000.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley opted for an open casket funeral and photos of Emmett’s mangled body circulated in newspapers around the country adding much needed fuel to the nascent civil rights movement. One could argue that Emmett’s death was in itself not necessary. However, it is unquestionable that it necessarily changed the perspectives of a generation both on the inherently evil nature of racism and on the reality of life in the South for black and white people alike.
The notion of a liminal space between life and death, that is, a space of creativity and possibility, highlights the unbreakable link between the two phenomena. A key feature of the liminal space is its predilection for the unexpected and the new. Liminality transforms the cynical “in spite of” into an eschatological “because of.” Within it, one can speak of joy, not in spite of, but because of suffering, justice because of injustice, compassion because of unbearable hate, the invisible because of the visible, and life because of death. A Tillichian analysis suggests further that the perceived polarity between these opposable concepts and realities points to a deeper relatedness so that we do not simply cast one idea or phenomenon against the other but are invited to consider them in their depth, in their unity. If joy exists in spite of suffering, then suffering becomes the enemy of joy. The same can be said of the relationship between justice and injustice. To be just in spite of injustice does not threaten injustice, and justice becomes the possession of a favored few. To be just because of injustice, on the other hand, raises the possibility that the unjust might become just and that injustice in and of itself might come to an end. More concretely, to provide food in spite of hunger does not end hunger. Providing food because of hunger creates the possibility that hunger might come to an end.
As Tillich shows in his Systematic Theology, the loss of this element of depth lies at the heart of the existential problems that pervade the human condition. The liminal space may be characterized as one of unbridled creativity and generativity, put simply, a predilection for the transformative, which makes it a place of unbridled hope: there, justice is possible for all; life is possible for both the living and the dead. Simultaneously abstract and concrete, the liminal space is existential space. All things are possible within it. And those who learn to inhabit this space come to know – differently: a son can become father and teacher to his own father; a woman can be a mother even in the absence of her son; the oppressed can find their voice and transform the world; the oppressor can discover the sanctity of all life, especially the life of the oppressed. All are welcome into this space. Such an inclusive posture may seem problematic and even contradictory, but it is not. What makes the liminal special is its power to transform. Therefore, no one can claim control over it, and yet no one is excluded from its transformation potential, not even the dead, hence its eschatological thrust.
The experience of Eudel’s death, however painful, is also life-giving. Eudel now constitutes a bridge that links his family not to death but to a fuller way of being in the world. One wonders whether a greater awareness not only of death but also of its potential might not make the world better. What if the displays of generosity and love experienced at a funeral were practiced every day? What if that empathy for the suffering other were infused into every conversation or TV show or political debate? What if every child, here and now, received the attention and care which Stephanie lavished upon her dead son? What if, following Livingstone’s example, every father, nay, every man and woman, opened himself to learning from their children here and now? A different vision of the world emerges. For some reason, this kind of love is reserved for death, humanity’s supposed nemesis. I wonder what would happen if we lived as if every day was a funeral. Will we ever learn the lesson from death?
Becker, Ernest. 1973. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.
Brown, DeNeen L. 2018. “Emmett Till’s mother opened his casket and sparked the civil rights.” The Washington Post. Accessed on May 12, 2019.