Obituaries are a tricky thing to write, because most of us lead unexceptional lives. I hope that doesn’t sound cruel. It’s true of me, and it’s probably true of you. If I were to narrate the events of my life, they would be of no interest to anyone.
A good obituary usually tells us as much about the author than the deceased… and for better or for worse. You can always tell if the obit was written by a loved one, who really thought their grandfather’s love for the Red Sox was both unique and transcendental. On the other hand, you can also tell when the director of the funeral home jotted down a few lines about how grateful Ed was grateful for the care he received at Springfield Retirement Castle.
This is something we moderns struggle to understand. We’re told that we have to make our mark in the world; otherwise, what’s the point of living at all? That’s why everyone plays Frank Sinatra’s My Way at the wake.
(A few years ago, my wife was at a funeral Mass for a family friend. During his homily, the priest rather pointedly told the congregation that My Way plays every time someone walks into Hell.)
None of that matters. No: two things really define a man’s life. One is his love for God. The other is his love for his fellow man. That’s all.
Take this astonishing obit for a man called Will Pemberton. Mr. Pemberton is one of the founders of a blog called Utopian Idiots; the obituarist was his friend and co-founder, John Jalsevac. Here we have the story of a man defined by his loves, both for man and for God… and who also happened to live an extraordinary life.
Mr. Pemberton was a philosopher, a farmer, a blacksmith, a poet, a musician—and, it seems, a great deal besides. He was a genius, in the true sense of the word. And the chronicle of his life is extraordinary. You’ll have to read the whole thing.
But I was struck more by the man himself than by his deeds. Mr. Jalsevac recalls visiting Mr. Pemberton at the onset of their friendship. We learn about the man by learning about the love he inspired:
Often, after a difficult day, I would drop in on him. He would make a big pot of tea. At the time we both smoked pipes. Within minutes, such a peace would descend on my mind. Surrounded by real books, with real thoughts worth thinking, and immersed in conversation with one of the truly great conversationalists, time slowed. There was a palpable sense of touching on the permanent things, the slow, meaningful, rich, resonant things. Often, I would feel half-ashamed of myself for ever getting so worked up about all that nonsense in the news, or whatever it was I was fretting about at the time.
I know folks like that, and I hope you do, too. Just being in the presence of a good man, surrounded by good things, talking about good ideas, is a tonic. Tom Howard was like that for me—God rest his soul!
Later, Mr. Pemberton bought a farm on Cape Breton Island, where I’ve spent more than a few summers. It’s rough country, even in the warmer months. The farm failed, but that didn’t matter:
But lest I be misunderstood, let me be clear that Will’s love for his farm was in no way simply the love of some abstract, unrealizable ideal. Will loved his farm, as it was; and he loved the actual work of farming. He loved every bloody square inch of that rough, uncultivated, gorgeous property that he had dreamed about for so long. Even the thorny hawthorn that had completely overgrown the pastures during the decades in which the property had lain fallow was something beautiful to Will, a living resource to be used to build pens for his livestock.
Mind you, this isn’t being written by some hokey Wendell Berry fanboy. Mr. Pemberton did the thing. He didn’t meet the ideal, but he believed in it. He stroved for it. He lived by it. There’s an example of how a failure may be even more glorious than a success.
Finally, here’s the sum of Mr. Pemberton’s life:
For Will, to love God was in the end to completely immerse oneself in mystery. For God, who is Love, is utterly and inexpressibly transcendent, exceeding every possible intellectual category, escaping every imaginative representation. Christianity, therefore, is lived most authentically by simply immersing oneself in the God of Love, who in some very real sense transforms us into Himself. In immersing ourselves in Love, we become transformed into Love. And as Will saw it, any version of Christianity that in any way deviates from this central concern, has lost its way.
I’ll leave it there. But please read it all. Then subscribe to Utopian Idiots. I sure am.
Requiescat in pace, Will Pemberton. Fidelium animae, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace. Amen.