Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
Rites of passage
Wednesday, October 4, 2000
The last few mournful days have provided this country with a renewed connection with public ceremony in general and funeral rites of passage in particular. Canada has been bidding farewell to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, master of the pirouette, the middle finger and everything romantic in the souls of his countrymen.
The first goodbye was in Ottawa, where upward of 60,000 people came to see his casket at the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings. Then there was a train ride back to Montreal with stops in small towns along the way, a lying in state at Montreal's City Hall, and finally, yesterday, a grand and sad mass at Notre-Dame Basilica.
Throughout, who could help but wonder: Why do humans do these things? Why must the living speak to the dead?
Part of the answer lies in the sentiments found in cards left at the foot of Parliament Hill. "May we have the courage to follow your example," wrote one person. "Pierre, you made me a better Canadian," said another. Whether or not he knew them, many people were carrying on internal conversations with Pierre Trudeau.
The public rites allowed for a last word in the one-sided relationship between the known person and his unknown followers, as well as a reflection upon that relationship. Here, one says in the interior language of grief, is what I felt about you but never said. Like so many famous people you weren't an "out there," but a voice, or maybe better an echo, in the continuing internal conversation I carried on inside myself. So goodbye, my other, even if you didn't realize that otherness was your role.
But there is also something necessary about rites of passage when the non-famous are involved. They tell us something essential has changed. In death, the possibility of true communication has ended and everything past must now be consigned to the confusion of memory. And if people don't tell themselves in a firm and definite fashion that something essential has changed, they forget. They imagine the dead are still alive; they ignore the reality of the birth of children; they don't accept that they will live out their lives in a foreign country.
Thus, rites of passage are a way in which we reshape our sanity when confronted with inescapable and potentially overwhelming change. While he wasn't there in person, American poet A.R. Ammons captured the spirit of what the country felt as Pierre Trudeau was praised, cried over and then carried to a hearse by a phalanx not of angels, but of red-as-roses Mounties:
I attended the burial of all my
I performed rites, simple and decisive.