There is something about sex that feels like an unequivocal “fuck you” to death, taking something back from that which has taken something from you.
There is a peculiar sense of concentration that forces the world to fall away, something ritualistic; it is perhaps simply closure, an endpoint to the intense emotion that drives and drives and drives with death, until the official ceremonies are done but you are still left gasping, teetering on a precipice of Nothing Else To Do, food in Tupperware and errant scarves reunited with owners, and the thought of sitting alone in silence with every nerve ending alive is unbearable.
Not everyone gets it, of course, because everybody is different. Every body is different. And bodies come wrapped in their own social and cultural expectations that push them to act, or not, on their feelings. Some people go along with their lives as they are, and others become repulsed by the very idea of sex; sometimes grief comes with trauma that wraps itself around sexuality, perhaps especially for those who lose a partner. “Sexual bereavement,” they call it, a loss of a lengthy companionship complicated by a bewildering array of emotions, including a unique sense of loss.
I couldn’t tell you when I first experienced that itching, pulling, longing sensation that later I identified as funeral horniness, but I do remember going to the funeral of a family friend in high school, generations milling in closeness at the house later, tables groaning with food as the sound of people playing musical instruments somewhere floated in. Someone lit a fire in the backyard, and it threw off sparks that arced into the growing darkness. The house smelled like old books and gun oil and I felt like I was crawling out of my skin, unable to settle anywhere, evading well-meaning hugs and jowly faces arranged in expressions of sympathy, not understanding what this sensation was. I filched a beer from the fridge and sat out in the garden, away from the noise, by the fishpond, and tried to remember the last time I had sat there with our old friend, her gnarled fingers opening to release the cheap cat food she fed the fish. I wondered when they’d last been fed, and then someone sat down next to me and I decided it didn’t matter very much anymore.
The funeral is for the living, a crowd of people who have this thing—a love for someone who was once alive and now is not—in common. The whole thing is profoundly unjust: We are supposed to live forever, or at least die in thrilling 1940s murder mystery ways, slumped over our desks in locked rooms, not wheeled out of nursing homes or killed in pointless car accidents. The funeral is their moment to gather the parts of their loved one’s life into a whole, one that is often messy and dramatic, saturated with tears and littered in tissues. It is likely the last time this specific group of people will ever get together, and this awareness sparks something troubled in us as we light candles or dig the grave or sit in awkward rows in an antiseptic funeral home while people bumble up and down from a lectern and insipid music plays overhead. It is not just the death of the deceased that has happened to us in this space, but the severing of our connections to one another. Some of these people, we know, we will never see again.
A friend writes of watching her mother buried over livestream, the camera slightly askew as the cemetery workers lower the casket. They never got to see the body, and it took days for the funeral home to wrest her from the custody of one of those long, chilly trailers that had popped up like mushrooms across New York City. There are painful pauses and silences. No one knows how to do this, to have a funeral that is not a funeral, because a funeral is fleshy parts crammed together and rustling skirts and awkward movements, dodging unwanted interactions and eating peculiar, earthy things at the afterparty—sorry, the gathering. Small, family only. But these are the funerals we have now; clients banned from funeral homes, barred access to cemeteries and crematoria, bodies whisked away into the darkness, never to be seen again, arrangements made over the phone or through masks on the sidewalk, standing six feet apart, passersby averting their gazes from something that should be taking place in a nice quiet room somewhere away, with tasteful music and a box of tissues and an innocuous flower arrangement.
We do not get to prepare our dead anymore. We do not get to dig graves or watch as the cremation container proceeds into the retort. For those who value viewings, a stilted version, corpse propped up in the middle of a video feed, is all that is available. Even drive-by funerals have been nixed as we all hide at home from a virus that has killed over 100,000 people in the United States alone, a tremendous number of funerals that proceed alongside the 7,700 or so other people who die in this country each day. Funeral rituals and traditions are being shredded. At times there is a strange, wondrous sense of incompletion, that perhaps someone is missing, not truly dead, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Like children denied access to the funeral because it might scare us, we don’t understand: How can she not be coming back anymore?
But that peculiar, tingling feeling, like someone running their fingers lightly across your arm, making the hairs stand up as your back arches—that feeling does not go away. It whispers at the edges of your consciousness when you get the phone call, tugs insistently as you ask about “arrangements” and claws at you in the night as you toss and turn in bed. When you sleep, you will dream of the dead, but when you wake, you will not remember what they said, only stand at the window watching the unseasonal rain, wondering where they are now. When the funeral horniness takes you, you are alone with it, sheltering, at home, at a moment when it is physical intimacy that kills.
But death, an ending, demands a beginning; sex, a beginning, demands an ending.