The move from a private residence into a complex like the South Philadelphia Athenæum entails, for me, a shift from transformations in immediately personal experience to transformations in social forms. Social forms include things like weddings, funerals, murder trials, auctions, the DMV, television shows, comedy nights— events that demand more than just a few friends and a really bad idea. I must say: I still prefer the tighter, more personal, freewheeling transformations— the games among a small band of dedicated masters, played in the kitchen, the forest, or the public domain— but the golden ability to gather two hundred people in a space at the drop of an email certainly has its ups and advantages.
Most often, the social transformations have the logical form of parody, while still leaning toward something closer to the sincerity of Make-Believe. Make-Believe for those over twenty. And they perform a similar function as they do in childhood: they permit us to enter into otherwise unlikely scenarios and live through otherwise unlikely experiences— before they arrive without our asking. The situation itself forces me to think of how to rap, how to write a comedy routine, how to host a game show, or— in the case of Monday evening— how to direct a funeral and how to write a compelling eulogy for a dead friend, a fallen comrade. We held a parodic funeral for a soon-departing Eli Winograd. It was, in my estimation, the most fully-formed, warmly magical action at the Athenæum thus far. An event that, by its actuality alone, cleared away all the Doubt from my insides.
To think of this Unreal Funeral theatrically misses the point, unless you have a sufficiently upgraded or weirdball idea of theatrics. A theatrics that lifts devices from drama and fiction and puts them at the service of the Life Narrative. I would be less inclined though to call this theatrics or drama, than maybe “histrionics.”
The litmus, in this scenario, was the absence of cameras and strangers; the absence of much an audience at all. Drew clicked off a few digital snapshots as souvenirs, to vaguely recall the mood and the tableau, but the priority of the actions remained outside of performance. With the exception of the fundamental fact of most funerals— Death— everyone was attending a real, traditional, opencasket funeral service for Eli Asher Winograd, friend and beloved colleague. Nearly every one present let the scenario soak through, involving themselves in an internal, Stanslavskian way.
Experientially speaking, Eli gained the most perspective that evening. Eli was granted the chance to hear and live through his own funeral, making true of this action what Walter Benjamin said of the potential of cinema: it took the senses where they could not otherwise go. And not only the senses; emotively, Eli could relax in his casket and really confront this new fact, Death, with an unusual leisure and appreciation. The rest of us, who tried to internalize the fake death, got to live through his absence without the messiness of having a corpse on our hands.
I do not think that playing with Death is morbid. We all daydream scenarios. Sometimes, these scenarios involve long, televised processions with millions in tow and women throwing themselves into your grave. Sometimes, your mind glimpses the last horrorific seconds of consciousness after you’ve gotten unwrapped under a moving train. Whatever the case, imagination is the essence of all thanatopsis (this is a ten-dollar Greek term for “a meditation on Death”); it’s the only way we can confront it. By extrapolation. By getting as close as we can without falling in. By Make-Believe.
I had never actually attended a funeral; much less directed one. Funerals, I learned, are all about mood. This seems obvious, given the strength of grief, but mood renders everything else— words, décor, details— irrelevant. You could hold a funeral in a moonbounce as long as the attendees were truly mourning.
We still provided the details nevertheless. down to the last. The open casket, the dress, the hourlong Sunday morning silence, the guest book, the candles, the flowers, the podium, Beethoven’s Pathetique on loop. Billy Newman had a face of stone and began his eulogy with the ad-libbed line “all I see is a bunch of faggots laughing at a dead man.” Heather, the Athenæum heiress, sported a black veil between smoke breaks. Jen filled the silences between eulogies with warm minor chords on an electric organ. The room was dark; the pews in place. Eli lay in sweet repose.
It went something like this….
Join Us In a Celebration of
The Life And Laughter
Eli Asher Winograd
This Seventh of March,
Two Thousand and Five
At the South Philadelphia Athenæum.
Eulogy and Introduction By Brandon Joyce
Eulogies by Billy Newman, Jay Purdy, Dave Laverdue, and Jeanette.
Requiem by Chris Hayden.
Casket Viewing, to the tune of John Lennon’s Imagine.
“I stand before you today the representative of a community in grief, in a country in mourning before a world in shock. We are all here, united not only in our desire to pay our respects to Eli Winograd but— rather— in our NEED to do so. For such was his extraordinary appeal that the tens of people taking part in this service feel that, with the loss of Eli, they lost some significant part of themselves as well.Eli was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, and of grace. All over the world, he was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a man who transcended all nationality, all boundaries, and all division. He did what he did out of the best of impulses, and never thought about his own benefit when bringing to everyone his particular brand of magic. His wonderful way with the world around him.
Today is our chance to say “thank you” for the way you brightened our lives, ELi, even though God granted you but half a life. We all feel cheated that you were taken from us so young and yet we must learn to be grateful that you ever came along at all. Only now that you are gone do we truly appreciate what has left us, and we want you to know that life without you is— and will continue to be— a struggle.
We have all despaired at our this recent loss and only the strength of the message you gave us— through your years of giving— has afforded us the strength to move forward. To continue what you began in your brief time upon this Earth.
Though there is a temptation to rush to canonise your memory, there is no need to do so. You stand tall enough as a human being of unique qualities not to need to be seen as a saint, as something outside or above of us. Indeed to sanctify your memory would be to misconstrue you. To miss the very lightheartedness and personability and that made Eli, Eli. your squirrelly sense of humor. Your wide grin. Your noiseless, but nonetheless throughly infectious, laughter. We are bound to remember the good times, Eli, because those are the only times we seem to have had with you….Truly Good Times.
We remember your instinct for what was important to others. Your willingness to work to see the dreams of others realized. This is what makes the man. What he does for others. In your case, it was a true gift, and a gift you used daily and wisely. To encourage others in their projects no matter how pointless or misguided those projects may have seemed to the rest of civilized society. No matter how loud or weird we became, Eli, we could still feel your love and your unwavering support. And now the time has come for us to offer you OUR support— and our best wishes— as you defend your decisions before the eyes of Divine Judgment.
Hopefully, the Lord takes things with a grain of salt.
The last time I saw Eli, well I can’t say when exactly the very last time I saw was. He was back and forth a lot. But, the last MEMORY of Eli I have is seeing him eat several bowls of cereal with water rather than milk. I think that this is a gleaming metaphor for Eli’s whole approach to life. His way of thinking. The thing that made us laugh and cry and sometimes cringe. From this point onward, whenever I see a mason jar with something large and bulbous floating in it, I will remember the joy.
All kidding aside, I must say that though not every friendship can be truthfully be said to be a bond of love, it can be truthfully said of such a friend as Eli. And for those of us who missed the chance to tell him in life, I invite anyone to take this opportunity to express their feelings— now, his last time upon this earth…