Mortal Remembrance in Fact and Fiction

May 25, 2023 at 10:30 am
Detail from the cover of Celebrants.
Detail from the cover of Celebrants.

What do we need to learn about ways we might honor and keep close the departed? We can bring favorite stories about them into every conversation. Or horde keepsakes, or habitually visit resting places. We might agonize over whether we’re doing too much or too little to maintain their legacy — on behalf of them, or others who miss them, or ourselves. Death might be the greatest mystery of all, but grieving is in the running for second place. A pair of upcoming literary events spotlight new books that, with very different approaches, reflect on how we mourn, reflect, and move on.

“Who We Lost” is a collection of essays and some poetry, based on a website that compiles the recountings and regrets, and gasps of shock and episodes of gratitude faced by those who have had loved ones pass away during the pandemic of our times. Louisville’s Martha Greenwald, editor for the slim-but-powerful volume, calls it a “portable COVID Memorial.” About 40 postings from the site (most a few hundred words) make up the bulk of the pages, and they’re thoughtfully selected and sequenced.

Voices devastated and bereft share vivid memories of those who gave them lifetimes of joy or laughter, or even annoyances that are now much-missed. The subjects of the essays often took ill suddenly; a prominent, life lesson-worthy motif is goodbyes being dictated by circumstance. As presented here (and on the website, which doesn’t allow comments), the politics of vaccines, facemasks, and facility-closings become low whispers — respected but kept in perspective while the healing of hearts is given a safe place. A midsection of the book is given over to healthcare professionals — survivors in a different regard but with harrowing and courageous anecdotes that might be eye-opening. There’s a formidable appendix with guidelines and writing prompts to get grief and appreciation of the past into your own journal on behalf of The WhoWeLost Project’s motto: “Shelter Their Story.”

Greenwald and theology professor Beatrice Marovich host a “Community Meditation of Remembrance” at Carmichael Bookstore’s 2720 Frankfort location on Friday, June 2 at 7 p.m. There’ll be readings by several of the book’s contributors.

Might your your day-to-day — or maybe some big decisions — be reconsidered if you glimpsed your friends gathering to look at the whole of your life? Best-selling novelist Steven Rowley’s “The Celebrants” offers a life chronicle of five friends who decide to let each of the group declare when he or she wants a before-its-time funeral for themselves.

The concept comes naturally: there was a sixth member of this group who overdosed on the eve of graduation. This catharsis shakes the three men and two women who are all bright and, to that moment, ready for accomplishment. Partly because of their jointly-felt loss, they maintain a tight-knit ring, completing each other’s sentences as often as they call each other’s bullshit. They even have a California destination that functions like their own Fortress of Solitude.

The fivesome’s respective levels of privilege (in culture as well as resources) don’t cover much of a range, but life still has dramatic challenges over the decades. Rowley’s accomplished style can be counted on to pull out a pocketful of energetic vitality, making it easy to wrangle readers into hurting-then-healing reunions that follow after solitary personal collapses. Not everyone will see themselves toasted by the last page, but sophisticated madcap moments regularly rub elbows with universal bittersweetness, as best combined during a skydive over Puerto Vallarta.

Author Rowley will appear at the Main Library, 301 York St., Wednesday, June 7 at 7 p.m. Free registration is requested via the Events page at or call 574-1644.