Colgate Class of 1973 Service of Remembrance and Celebration
…all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all…
— John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, xvii (1623)
That’s a quotation from John Donne’s Devotions on Emergent Occasions, published exactly 400 years ago. You can find it reproduced on the last page of the service leaflet. It’s taken from the same chapter as a more famous passage, the one where he says no man is an island, and where he famously reveals for whom the bell tolls. I will read that passage in a moment, at the end of this talk, a cue for the chapel bell to toll again, thirteen times, in memory of the classmates we have lost. But as one of the editors of our reunion yearbook, particularly of its obituary pages, I think that this earlier passage, with its bookish imagery, is worth pausing over, in spite of its gendered language.
“All mankind is of one author,” Donne writes, “and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.”
In a wonderful new study–Super-infinite: The Transformations of John Donne–Katherine Rundell describes the circumstances that produced such a thought. Donne wrote this passage on his sickbed, convinced he soon would die. It was not a good time for him to be dying. No time is, I suppose. Donne had just negotiated the engagement of his young daughter Constance to a much older man, the newly widowed actor Edward Alleyn. Alleyn was famous, larger than life. Long considered the greatest actor of his time, he was also a shrewd impresario. By the late 1590s, he had become perhaps Shakespeare’s principal rival in the theater business. So for John Donne and his relatively impecunious family, a son-in-law like Alleyn was a great catch. An elaborate wedding was in the works. The year was 1623. That was the year—speaking of scattered leaves—when Shakespeare’s buddies Heminges and Condell had cobbled together the first printed collection of Shakespeare’s plays, a slightly later edition of which you can find somewhere in the bowels of Case Library. But by 1623 Shakespeare had been dead seven years. Edward Alleyn had happily outlived him. He was well into his fifties, and a wealthy man. John Donne, for his part, had been a brilliant poet in his youth but was now the austere dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. There was a lot of money at stake in this arranged marriage, in dowries and estates.
But the wedding of Edward Alleyn to Constance Donne was disastrously postponed. The Rev Mr Donne had fallen ill of typhus. The prognosis was not good. London had always been a plague-ridden city. In these post-pandemic days, we can sympathize. We are all well acquainted with the fierce randomness of plague. In Donne’s London the tolling of a bell was too often a warning that death was once again prowling the neighborhood. Donne was certain he would die. But after several agonizing weeks recovery took him by surprise, probably owing less to the ministrations of the doctors he praises in these meditations than to his own impressive immune system. Whatever the medical reasons, the dean of St. Paul’s lived to write about his near-death experience. Not all of our classmates would get the same chance. Which brings us here this morning.
Donne imagines God as a kind of heavenly bookbinder, and our lives as individual chapters in a massive Book of Life. It seems oddly appropriate to mention this here, since the one thing almost all of us who entered Colgate as freshmen have in common is that, for better or worse, as eighteen-year-olds our lives were bound together by the books we read together, chapter by chapter—Plato’s Republic, Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Buber’s I and Thou, Augustine’s Confessions. At our deaths, Donne writes, rather than torn out and, maybe like our copies of Kant, sent to the recycling bins, the various chapters of our lives must endure a grim but generative fate. Not death, but translation. Only by translation, as if from a foreign language—translation by age, sickness, war, justice– can these scattered pages, these scattered leaves, be rebound, made more easily accessible in clearer language and a more lasting edition—in the language of memory and celebration, a language rendered readable to those of us who survive, as in turn our own translated lives will be read by and to those who survive us.
You see why as an editor of a 50th reunion yearbook I was attracted to this bookish metaphor. But to tell the truth, rebinding the scattered leaves of our departed classmates was not easy. We had been warned. When Eleanor, Steve, and I started out on this project fifteen months ago, our predecessors in the classes of ‘70, ‘71, and ‘72 told us that the most frustrating and tedious part of the editors’ job would be our search for obituaries. Fifty years is a long time. Things get lost. Facts disappear. Photographs fade. Memories dim. The alumni office sent us a necrology (what an ugly word, necrology), but warned us that the list might increase in size over the next several months. We needed to leave time to research possible additions. Sadly, that turned out to be the case, even up to a few weeks ago. But thanks to the American obsession with genealogical research, we did have resources going forward. There were the Mormons of course, with their immense database searchable through Ancestry.com. There were newspaper indexes. There was even a website called Find a Grave. We learned early on to be strategic about keyword searches. The realm of the dead is both expansive and labyrinthine. It’s amazing how many people living and dead share the same names. Including middle initials and the word Colgate in our web searches was pretty much essential.
In the end, we managed to glean quite a bit of basic information. You will recall that Donne listed four agents of translation from this life to the next: age, sickness, war, and justice. None of us died in war, thank God (most of us were born a few months too late to be caught in the draft), and as far as we can tell, our class lost no one to the iron hand of retributive justice. But age and sickness took their toll.
Age depends on how you look at it, I guess. Look around—we’re still here in our seventies, often in spite of ourselves. We are the lucky ones. A few of our number died well before their time—Jeff Ebbels died in a traffic accident two years before graduation, John Savage just a year later. Dan Dobson died in 1974, we learned, while a medical student in France; John Webb in 1979, another car accident. And some of us were taken suddenly, in ways both sad and unpredictable. Francis Stack, athlete and musician, fell off his bike in a freak accident; my high school friend John Hurlbut fell down a set of stairs; Andy Cox died mountaineering; Mike Gernsheimer perished when his car was hit by a drunk driver; Craig Webster crashed in a small plane he was piloting.
But it was sickness that translated most of us. For example, Greg Kolovakos and Kym Desjardins died of AIDS, maddingly too soon; Mike Altieri and John Dubert from the effects of diabetes; Jim Atkinson, Clark Good, and, recently, Dave Butler died from cancer. Dave was a beloved minister and playwright serving up in Maine—we had hoped that we could invite him to help lead in this service. Rick Caprio and Jim Januzzo, we learned, died from cardiac arrest; Jim Lomonosoff from a stroke; Scott Wheaton from pneumonia.
These are the bare facts—what we managed to glean from all those scattered obituaries and news reports. But it was only when we began receiving memorial accounts from so many of you–from roommates, fraternity brothers, study group colleagues, and surviving spouses—only then did these lives come into focus. It was so moving to read the memorial reflections as they piled in. So many memories. So much humor. So much loss. So many tributes. It is these lifelong connections—some of them first forged in this very room—that have inspired so many of us to gather here early on a Saturday morning in June, in a place and for an occasion where–to paraphrase Donne—we might “bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.”
“OK, boomers”, as my daughter would say. Get over it. We are all in our seventies, after all. Our time will come, likely sooner than we would want. Thank God we are well enough today to gather here to remember and celebrate those who can no longer gather, those whose names and images we see flashing before us. We are here to celebrate these lives lost, lives either long or not long enough, and to reaffirm, even as we ourselves grow older, the binding affections that for so many of us were fostered when we were young in this valley and among these hills. As Donne famously asserted, “no man is an island,” nor no woman either.
No man is an island, Donne writes, entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
In this moment of silent remembrance, to the sound of a tolling bell, may this reminder of our solidarity with each other, with both the living and the dead, be for us both a blessing and a challenge, especially in these troubled and conflicted days.