Thursday, November 04, 2004

Communicating With the Dead

Adapted from my personal blog

As I stood in the sacristy at St. Michael's Sunday morning, October 31st, chatting about blogs, something happened that really delighted me. Our organist and choir director, Jane Haman, started playing her chosen prelude for the October 31st (22nd Sunday After Pentecost) 10 AM Mass: Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor! You know this piece, whether or not you recognize the name. It's the quintessential spooky organ music, and probably my favorite classical piece of all time. I stood there grinning, listening. Nor was I the only one delighted by Jane's choice. Everyone was listening, and enjoying. After Mass, Jane said, "I've never played it before in my five and a half years here. It was about time." This was the same piece I asked another church organist to play at my wedding, back in 1979. He wouldn't do it (it's kind of long, and not at all appropriate), but he did play it for me in private in an empty church.

In his Halloween sermon, Father Douglas talked about communicating with the dead. (I'll be posting his sermon in the next day or so on the sermons page.) He told a story of a family Back East who wanted to bring a medium in at the local churchyard, to extract financial advice from some ancestor. The then-youthful Fr. Douglas refused the request. However, he pointed out in the sermon that in going to churches decades old, partaking in liturgies centuries old, reading texts by saints and patriarchs who died millenia ago, we are communicating with the dead. We are paying attention to words and traditions our long-dead forbears considered important, and trying to learn from them.

The same, I suppose, can be said of many activities, even in the information age. Every time we carve a jack-o-lantern or put on a Halloween costume, every time we read Shakespeare, listen to Bach, learn about Newton and Einstein, or research a family tree, we are communicating with the dead. No mediums (although there may be media), no mumbo jumbo, no time machines required. We partake of the past through what the people of the past left behind.

my mom's father - probably. He died in 1950. Somewhere in my house is a white folder from Adair Funeral Home. I looked all week for it and didn't find it, just as I looked all week in vain for a box of missing Halloween stuff. In that folder is a funeral preplanning questionnaire, filled out by me and my mom at Villa Campana in 2002, perhaps four months before her death. If I could find that, I would probably know more about my mom than I do now.

You would think that I'd know pretty much everything about a woman I lived with for eighteen years, visited many times after that, took to lunch almost every Sunday for at least six years, and visited nearly every night as her health failed toward the end. Nope. There are many things I never know or have forgotten, many questions I could have asked and didn't. I asked about some things, but overall I didn't want to seem to be too obviously pumping her for information in preparation for her death.

But I found an envelopeFlora M Johnson and Flora DuFour Johnson Ballantine--I think! full of genealogy my brother sent her years ago, and dug out three reference books in which she's listed, including an old edition of Who's Who of American Women. I've entered the info I found onto her tribute page and the family Find A Grave pages, except for things I know to be inaccurate. I've found and posted old pictures, even though I'm not sure who some of the people are in my mom's collection of prized wallet photos, plus one sepia portrait that's probably of my grandfather. I've looked through some of the files of plays Mom wrote in Florida, stuff I've never read or seen performed.

I'll continue to go through papers, but I'm sure there will still be gaps. Where did Mom work in San Bernardino, and where in Brevard County, before her stint at Barry University? My grandmother. Can someone identify this uniform for me?Exactly how many plays did she write or co-write, and in what years? Where in New York City did my mom teach English in the 1940s? Was my grandmother a WAC or a WAVE, in WW II or Korea or neither? My mother's been dead two years, but there's still a lot I want her and other dead family members to communicate to me, the ordinary, historical way, through physical evidence.

I'm at an earlier stage of the same situation with my dad. He's 81, still active and generally healthy, but I know he won't last forever. He doesn't like to reminisce. He's much more interested in talking about the present and the future. He was uninterested when I mentioned finding only one online reference (other than mine) to his many years as Assistant Dean and then Dean of University College at Syracuse University. He'd be even less pleased if I pumped him for information about his childhood, his experience in Stalag 1, how his plane got shot down, or even what years he was at Lehigh University or what he did for Voice of America there. So I have to piece it together from my memories of what Mom said, and what my brother knows. Tricky. However, my brother tells me he's got family tree stuff for dad already posted on his web site, some of it researched by my cousin, Ed Oliveri. To get to the info, though, I'd have to subscribe to In other words, I'd have to pay. Not today, thanks.

Earlier in this posting I mentioned Find A Grave ( This web site has supposedly millions of grave listings, contributed by a hundred thousand registered users. Some people have traveled around with a camper and a camera, cataloging entire cemeteries. The idea is to build a database of all the nation's graves, plus listings for people whose ashes her interred, scattered, or stored. The result is a good, free resource for people researching family trees, biographies or history, and a nice way to commomorate someone's life. Naturally, I thought first of cataloging part of East Lawn Palms, where my mom's grave is. It also occured to me that it would be nice to upload listings for the St. Michael's memorial garden. Father Smith has given me permission to do this, but I also want your input. If you have a loved one interred at St. Michael's, I'd like to hear from you. Is it all right for me to post the information? Is there something in particular you want included in the listing, whether it's a biographical detail or a favorite photo? Please email me at mavarin @, and let me know your wishes on the subject.

And please, everyone - this blog is not meant to be Karen talking to an empty virtual room. Please contribute your poetry, prayers, essays, photos, and parables to this page. Thanks!