Fresh from getting my Columbia MFA, I was broke and in need of quick cash. I accepted a gig as a proofreader and editor of funeral brochures in Brooklyn. The company, located in a rambling warehouse off Gowanus Canal, was a death-industry behemoth: It sold religious cards, gravestone markers, custom funeral tents, a magazine called Jewish Funeral Director, and some kind of special “no-smell” embalming fluid.
I was there for the funeral brochures, those pamphlets with the Order of Service. I sat in a warehouse room and looked at copy all day. Others photoshopped photos of the recently deceased—sometimes, those photos were taken from employee ID cards, because that old man who died had no recent pictures. We were considered the high-end for these kinds of brochures. The brochures were usually for those who had died outside of the church—their families wanted a religious funeral but didn’t have any religion they could claim. So they rented a preacher, often the same preacher, a man with the last name of Ford, who seemed to preside over 4-5 funerals a day. The orders of service were almost always the same: Rev Ford read the same Bible verses and the group sang the same songs, 4-5 times a day, every day.
Many of the services were for African Americans who had been shot, only a night or two before. Sometimes, I’d read the police accounts of the crime before I’d read the copy for the funeral brochure: this kid sold crack, the police said. This other one was a gangbanger. That kid who ended up separated into three trash bags? He was a blight to the community. Then I read the copy for the cards: It was never written well; it was never evocative of the life just lost, “He is among the stars,” some grandmother wrote. “He was the light of my life,” wrote another. I was told to just run the copy as the person wrote it; don’t interview the grandmother and write something better, just clean up her words and use AP Style in my edits.
But there’s this: Words are what we use to understand the pain of others. Without that, we see the weeping on TV of these kids shot by the latest mad gunman. We are left with the spectacle of inchoate pain. And then we move on, because that pain is too big for any of us to understand. And then we simplify the stories: That was a good kid who was accepted to college. She liked music. When she entered a room, that room lit up. Or in my case, that kid? That kid was a gangbanger who was still “among the stars” for some grandmother, somewhere.
I quit the job after a couple of weeks—I guess I was just a tourist. But something stayed with me: We’re in this together, and we all so much more than what we can say. Those kids who died in the shooting: They were more than we can say and they were murdered by a society that refuses to see that. If they’d understood, this would not have happened.
Instead of their safety, we thought only of ourselves and our “right” to have a gun. So we watch parents as they cry. And Florida’s version of Rev. Ford is still showing up for work.