“The Trouble with Harry”, a 1955 Alfred Hitchcock black comedy about a dead body, tickled my mother’s macabre sense of humor for years. In the movie, a group of five small-town oddballs try to keep Harry’s dead body hidden. After they bury Harry, they dig him up and re-bury him five separate times to try to solve the mystery of his death. Each has a story about why they think they killed Harry. In the end, a kooky doctor pronounces that Harry died of a heart attack.
I don’t recall my mother ever going to the movies, but she joked around about “The Trouble with Harry” and loved watching Alfred Hitchcock films on TV. The movie isn’t funny by anyone’s standards, except my mother’s. She couldn’t wait to crack open the new issue of the New Yorker every week and show us the latest Charles Addams cartoon. Charles Addams, creator of the Addams Family franchise, concocted neither violent nor diabolical characters. They were goulish goofs, like their dark-humored animator. And, like my mother.
About the time I became aware of my mother laughing about dead people, the nuns were teaching my sisters and me the Latin Requiem Mass to sing at Cathedral funerals in downtown Indianapolis. The quaint practice of using children to sing at Catholic funerals developed in the Middle Ages with boy choirs. Females were not allowed to participate publicly in sacred music until the mid-19th century. I attended thirteen Catholic grade schools and the nuns in every single one managed to squeeze rehearsing the Requiem into the girls’ weekly schedule.
At the funeral of the father of triplet girls who were in my third grade class, the eight year-old daughters processed up the aisle behind their father’s casket. White veils shadowed our bewildered choir faces as we peered over the pews and chanted the Requiem in Latin, “Eternal rest grant him, O Lord”.
It’s as if we wished the dead father a deep dark sleep.
Leading up to the day of the funeral, the shock of a young father’s death did not escape nervous chatter. I sensed my parents had questions about how he died. Perhaps that’s the case with every death. Like Harry, isn’t the first thing we ask, “how did they die”? And don’t we always wonder if there was something suspicious about the end of a person’s life? All closed-door gossip was put to rest with the triplet’s father in the clearing at the Requiem Mass.
In the 1970’s the Catholic Church decided to celebrate the living dead, shining in God’s light forever, as well as lament the finality of the deceased’s eternal rest. My mother had a low opinion of her Catholic Church, but approved of celebrating souls living forever, perhaps floating around in the light of the cosmos, like Charles Addams’ characters.
I’m no longer Catholic. However, influenced forever by the nuns and my mother, I accept the mystery of the two seemingly contradictory notions in the Requiem.
Requiem aeternam dona eis: eternal rest grant them.
Lux æterna luceat eis: let eternal light shine upon them.