How strange is death. That was a statement, not a question. No
letters correcting my punctuation, please.
It’s the grand finale we’re all working towards but no one’s
looking forward to or, in many cases, even talking about. It’s the last great
mystery of life and, arguably, the only real excuse for the longevity of
religious beliefs. It’s our final chance to do something well but very few of
us give much thought to, or even take an active hand in, how and when and with
what flair we do it.
When death comes, even to those long suffering in its final
throes, it is said to come suddenly. Death can come no other way. As you
breathe your last breath, you’re alive. When you fail to inhale again, you’re
Some of us believe we’ll go to heaven even though we can’t
really describe what it might be like unless we are a Muslim martyr dreamin’ of
72 virgins. Some of us believe in hell and are pretty sure we’ve had more than
a few experiences close enough to the real thing to have a better understanding
of that option. Some of us expect to make our way through the increasingly
exquisite levels of enlightenment or, if we’re wrong, be reincarnated as a
cockroach. Some of believe when we’re dead, we’re just dead meat and all the
nonsense about the transcendent human spirit is just a psychic nightlight to
keep the boogieman away. Me? I want to come back as my dog if he’s willing to
share the job with me.
Death brings me back to the little prairie town of Winkler,
Manitoba. Winkler is a town of roughly seven thousand souls, several of whom I
am related to by marriage. Truth be told, I have more relatives in and around
Winkler than anywhere else in the world. That probably says something about the
weirdness of marriage but that’s for another column.
Winkler is a lot like Whistler, which is totally inexplicable
since I couldn’t imagine two places more dissimilar. Both have about the same
population, both rely on people who live outside of town to make the town work
and to ensure its prosperity. Both towns are economic oases in areas more prone
to the ups and downs of a global economy. Both celebrate Canada Day.
But where Whistler is all about vertical, Winkler is all about
horizontal. Where Winkies are all about hard work and harvesting the bounty of
the land, Whistleratics are all about hard play — which, to be fair, we
consider work — and harvest the bounty of anyone who stumbles into town.
If what happens in Whistler stays in Whistler, what happens in Winkler is known
by just about everyone in town… as soon as it happens.
If Whistler is a haven for the young, the young at heart and,
let’s be honest, the terminally immature, Winkler is a haven for an older
generation. It is, in the words of locals — a term reserved for those
whose grandparents were born nearby — heaven’s waiting room. In large
numbers, they come in off surrounding farms after a lifetime of hard work in
and around much smaller towns, towns with names like Altona, Gretna,
Schanzenfeld, Reinland, Schoenwiese and others too repetitive to mention, towns
whose “Welcome To” and “Please Come Back” road signs are printed back to front
on the same piece of faded plywood, towns whose populations read like IQ scores
of the not particularly gifted, towns whose sole reason for existing, a
once-new now dilapidated grain elevator, is gone because the railroad has cut
their elevator off the serviced line.
They’ve passed on the family farm to their children and moved
themselves to Winkler to await their fate and measure the goodness of their
lives against a scale they’ve worked hard to tailor to their individual faults.
In the process, they’ve created the town in their image, a pious, German,
Mennonite image. Sin does not live in Winkler, MB. Eight miles up the road in
Morden sin thrives, taking the form of a liquor store, a couple of roadhouse
bars and Sunday shopping. Good citizens of Winkler shun Morden, driving out of
their way on mean farm roads to avoid passing too near and being seduced by its
siren song. Not-so-good Winkies sneak in through unmarked back doors.
In a town alive with industry it is yet another paradox that
death is one of the strongest going concerns. Every morning after the 9 o’clock
news, CRIP, Death Radio, tolls the bell for all who have succumbed within its
broadcast range. For the better part of 30 minutes, an announcer somberly gives
the names of the dead and the near-dead they’ve left behind, a synopsis of
their life’s accomplishments in the form of whom they begat, the times and
place of their viewing and funeral, and where and when interment will take
place, all intoned in a disembodied, funereal voice completely devoid of life.
In a time when many newspapers have relegated obituaries to
half a page of terse classifieds tucked somewhere near the back, the local
weekly overflows with several pages of long, flowery announcements running 10,
12, sometimes 15 column inches. They recite the highlights of a lifetime and
trace the many stout branches of the departed’s family tree from deep roots to
a fertile crop of great-great grandchildren.
If death is its largest industry, reproduction runs a close
second. It is said, with only a hint of exaggeration, that Mennonites don’t
have sex standing up because they’re afraid people might think they’re dancing.
Judging from the proliferation of children, they have no time for dancing and
have seldom seen late night TV. Outside of Utah there may not be another
first-world locale where families are grown as bountifully as they are here. To
be married and have no children is a perversion of epic proportions, salved by
a collective pity that one or both nonparents must be deficient in the
God-given bits needed to reproduce, bits still considered a mystery judging by
the legions of children trailing swollen and expectant mothers through town,
paraded behind like ducklings and metered out in increments of roughly nine
months and a day, each a few inches shorter than the one ahead and all scrubbed
to a translucent glow reminiscent of new skin left behind after a bad sunburn
Perhaps it is the culture of death that gives rise to all the children. I don’t intend to stick around to find out. If death came suddenly for my brother-in-law, Wally Siemens, his funeral came just as suddenly and just like that, I’ll be back in Whistler, a town not really much like Winkler at all now that I think about it.