Dirge Without Music

Many years ago, I sang an oratorio piece in a choir at my congregation in Brookline. We spent months rehearsing and preparing for the performance in the spring. As a musician, it was by far one of the most challenging pieces I’ve ever taken on. At the same time, practicing and performing with the other choir members and orchestra left me feeling exhilarated.

Looking back, there was one line in that piece that stood out to me. The phrase appeared in the second movement, as a repeating motif over several measures. The phrase was, “Let the dead bury their dead.”

This phrase struck me as rather odd at the time. I was 15 or 16 when I sang this piece, and I had no idea of what it meant. How can the dead bury the dead, let alone their dead? Recently, though, that phrase has resurfaced in my mind when someone I had known for a couple of years at BU passed away. I am still trying to process his death, and the emotions that have emerged in light of it.

Grief is an incredibly complicated emotion. It manifests in a variety of ways in different people, and it also does not follow a set time course. For some, it appears immediately; for others, it may take weeks or months after a loss for it to appear. When I learned the news of his death, it took me a moment to collect myself before I could continue the conversation. I distinctly remember not feeling an emotion immediately. Instead, there was only silence inside, a internal quietness that had settled in my mind. Several days later, I attended a meeting to talk about his death, with a dozen or two other people. After the introductory parts of the conversation began, there was also a long silence in the room. It lasted for a good twenty or thirty seconds before someone began to speak. I was only hit with emotion after that meeting, when I sat down and finally felt the weight of that silence, both in the meeting and in my being when I heard the news.

I had sung years before the verse, “Let the dead bury their dead.” I think this phrase means that we should move on, and not let death and loss consume our energies and prevent us from living. Still, I find this message rather hard to accept. I’ve encountered death in a very personal way several times, and this time I have no words or requiem to meet it, only silence. Even though life goes on, I want to acknowledge the weight of the silence and the heaviness in this loss. I have accepted that I may carry it with me for a while before I put it down. But in the meantime, I will continue grappling with this encounter with death. I believe Edna St. Vincent Millay expresses this internal struggle beautifully:


Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.


I may carry the weight of this death and grief, but I am not resigned to it. I intend to actively encounter and engage with this weight, however difficult that may be. In time, I know, that weight will diminish. In time, I know, this too shall pass.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *