Most grammar rules, we break as blithely as casually as kids break curfew. Only when we speak of the dead do we turn timid, terrified of using the wrong tense. In the first few days, someone “has died,” but once the announcement is made, they simply “died.” Or “passed,” though none of us can be sure where. Then the only bit of present tense left is where their body lies—that, and the fact that they are “deceased”—a terrible word, redundant and ugly, its adjectival synonyms breathless, cold, dead, defunct, demised, late, lifeless, low.
When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, Indians raced to tell each other that Gandhi “is no more.” But even that existential phrasing soon shifted to the past. U.S. newspapers time the progression from present perfect (“has died”) to past tense (“died last week”) with a stopwatch. It remains possible to say that someone “has been dead” for a certain number of years, but the act of dying must be kicked to the past tense, distanced. Shrinks worry if we do not force a quick shift to past tense, seeing lapses as denial.
Nonetheless, I still occasionally slip back into present tense when speaking of someone I loved (love?) deeply. Usually it is when I am describing their traits or something they would love, hate, or think. I forget that subjunctive “would” because I do not need a hypothetical; my memory is vivid.
My slips, while comforting, are grievous errors. There are only two times when such a defiant use of the present tense is acceptable for the dead. One is when you are referring only to their corpse: My mother-in-law is buried at United Hebrew Cemetery. Souls can be grandfathered in, allowing us to hope that Hitler rots in hell.
The other permissible use of present tense is when the person made such a notable artistic or literary contribution that their legacy is still very much alive. The Modern Language Association actually prefers that, when writing in the humanities, we treat both sources and reference materials as living works. This tense is called “the historical present” or “the eternal present”—lovely phrases that swish away our silly fixed notion that what is past is past. Using the historical present is less cumbersome and more graceful, which should tell us something already. But the real point of the present tense is to emphasize these works’ timelessness, their continued relevance.
In the scale of my tiny life, my mother is as timeless as Shakespeare, her insights just as relevant. I fight to remember the past tense, and then I think, Why? On sympathy cards and in eulogies, we insist that our loved ones will remain alive as long as we remember them. Whether their physical body has been studied, burned, or buried, who they are to us is intact, with distinct traits and preferences and habits. None of that has dissolved or dispersed. The idea of my mother lives in my mind and heart, and I would like to use language that honors that. This does not make me as loony as Faulkner’s Miss Emily, who curled up every night (spoiler alert) next to her beau’s corpse. It just means that our tenses are too rigid, leaving us no way to acknowledge ongoing love and gratitude.
Consider the quarrel on quora.com when someone screwed up by writing that two men “had been brothers.” Quite wrong, a grammarian retorted: “Two men who are brothers are always brothers and remain brothers even after they die. Death does not cancel their status as brothers.”
And my mother is still my mother.
In Mairtin Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille, the characters are all dead and buried, yet they continue to squabble, yearn, gossip, and nurse grudges and unrequited loves beneath the Connemara clay. The novel was first dismissed as too bawdy (too “Joycean” was the publisher’s euphemism), then acknowledged as a modern Irish masterpiece. Yet it took seventy years to be translated from Irish Gaelic. George Saunders won faster approval for the chatty just-dead in Lincoln in the Bardo. In The Book of Delights, poet Ross Gay includes a parenthetical epiphany: “(A delight that we can heal our loved ones, even the dead ones.)” And who has not smiled in sympathy with some fictional character—the retired homicide detective in New Tricks, for example, who talks to his dead wife in the garden every night and hears, as though voiced, her wise advice.
The line between dead and alive is fainter than we admit. If we moved more easily back and forth, we might feel warmer, less alone, less afraid. Anyone who has ever lived is still, in some sense, here with us.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.