At the End, Charlotte Dies: a Reflection on Death for All Souls Day

Tomorrow, Sunday November 2nd, is All Souls Day. In our home we commemorate the day by going to a cemetery and praying a family rosary for people who have died. We pray particularly, but not exclusively, for our family's deceased friends and relatives.

In honor of the day, I'd like to share with you some thoughts on . . .

Charlotte's Web. I'll never forget reading it as a girl. Like many bookish folks of a certain age, Charlotte's death was the first I ever experienced, in literature or real life. The fact that anyone, let alone a main character, would actually die gave me quite a shock. I didn't have any experience with hardship or sadness in life OR books. I was part of that first generation to get trophies just for showing up. I was pretty sure she was going to pull through, somehow.

But, of course, she didn't.

I don't remember being traumatized, more just genuinely surprised. I'd never read a book before where they didn't all live happily ever after.

Wilbur survived without Charlotte, and because of her. And I carried on as well, primed now to love and lose Beth March, Anne Frank, and, eventually, Cedric Diggory .

I really believe that what children experience in books, they are better able to process in real life. Dying, and the perception of dying, has been on my mind a lot lately. I've been praying for a change of heart for Brittany. That she might see that choosing death isn't the same thing as dying with dignity. And I've been praying for Courtney and the beautiful example of her slow progression towards dying that her family has been giving to the world. So it was with eyes wide open that I picked Charlotte's Web as a read aloud with my kids.

It's been nearly thirty years since I read it that first time, and I was impressed, again, with the simplicity of the story and the gentleness of the storytelling and the lyrical quality of the language. And we laughed out loud at Lurvy, and Avery, and Templeton.

We read a couple of chapters each day over lunch. Creeping closer and closer to Charlotte's death. As the bookmark inched towards those last couple of chapters, I wondered how my kids would handle it.

There's plenty of foreshadowing, of course, so they kinda saw the writing in the wall. And they were neither shocked NOR surprised when Charlotte died. In fact, they weren't even all that troubled, being much more interested in all the baby spiders.

When I read it as a child, I thought Charlotte's Web was an unrealistically unhappy book in which characters just die for no good reason.

But this time, I saw it differently. This time it seemed like an unrealistically happy book. Wilbur is SAVED! Charlotte dies a quiet, offscreen death. Hey, look over THERE at all the BABIES!

It's a fairy tale modern American death story. Charlotte spends herself heroically. Her unsung efforts save the life of her friend. She is a burden to none. An inconvenience to no one. She gets to make her heartfelt goodbye speech, and leave her children well-looked-after. She waves goodbye and dies alone. She leaves behind only happy memories and baby spiders.

And it's fine and lovely and we all enjoyed it.

But, now, as an adult, with a little more life experience under my belt, it doesn't seem . . . authentic.

Death IS inconvenient. It's loud and messy and expensive. It hurts, in all possible ways. Maybe a wave goodbye and a fade to black is possible for anthropomorphic spiders, but for people, there is no such thing as an easy death.

For those left behind, there is the memory of lengthy suffering, or the regret of an untimely parting. The myth of an easy death denies that every death of a loved one is a burden, but one that it's good for us to carry. But just because death isn't easy doesn't mean it isn't good.

All Souls Day is the day to remember that. It's the day to be grateful for the pain, because it meant we loved deeply and openly, all the way to the end. It's the day to remember that every end is a beginning, and every death is a birth into eternal life.

Charlotte died alone, with nothing but her pride. Wilbur was denied the gift of her last, vulnerable moments. He didn't get a chance to serve her the way she had been allowed to serve him. That's not what I want for our family. I pray for the grace to take on the burdens of illness and old age and death for the people I love. And I pray, when the time comes, for the humility to BE a burden to the people who love me.

The whole month of November is dedicated to our lost loved ones, the holy souls in purgatory. It's a great time to tell our kids about their great grandparents and great great grandparents, about how they lived and how they died. It's a great time to teach them to pray for friends and family members who have died. It's a great time to tell them about Courtney, and ask them to pray for her and her family. It's a great time to show them that, when we love each other, it's okay to be a burden.

It's also a pretty good time to read Charlotte's Web. Because even if it's not perfect, it's still a classic.

In related news . . .


If you'd like to keep track of ALL the feasts of the Catholic liturgical year, I've created a wall calendar to help you do it!

It features the all the feasts and fasts of the Universal Calendar and then some, illustrated with images featuring the traditional Catholic monthly devotions. It's an easy visual way to bring liturgical living into your home. You can keep track of the feasts and fasts and seasons of the Catholic year, and be reminded to focus your prayer on a different aspect of our faith each month.
January:The Holy Name of Jesus
February: The Holy Family
March: St. Joseph
April: The Blessed Sacrament
May: Mary
June: The Sacred Heart of Jesus
July: The Precious Blood
August Immaculate Heart of Mary
September: The Seven Sorrows of Mary
October: The Holy Rosary
November: The Poor Souls in Purgatory
December: The Immaculate Conception

As the Church year begins with December, so does this calendar. You get December 2017 through December 2018, thirteen months. Available for purchase here. Thanks!