On the night when he and renter exhumed his father's coffin, Oskar first had dinner with his mother and Ron. At the table, Oskar confronted Ron about having his own family, and learned that Ron's family had died in a car crash. He and Oskar's mother met in a grief counseling group. Oskar then agreed to accept a drum set from Ron, an offer he had previously refused.
Afterwards, Oskar met the renter on the street, and they left for the cemetery in a limo driven by Gerald, who had taken Oskar and his family to the cemetery for his father’s funeral two years before. When they arrived and scaled the fence, Gerald remained in the car. It took them a while to find the grave, and once they did, the job proved far more difficult than they had expected. When the flashlight batteries failed, Oskar returned to the car and asked Gerald to buy new batteries. After returning with the batteries, Gerald took pity on his companions and shoveled most of the hole himself.
When Gerald finally reached the casket, he excused himself. Oskar was surprised to find that the coffin was wet and cracked in places, and had not been nailed shut. Though he knew there would be nothing inside, he nevertheless felt a sense of loss in confronting that fact. Thomas Sr. placed all of his unsent letters into the coffin, which confused Oskar. (Later, this moment would help him piece together the connection between the renter and his father.)
Oskar did not return home until 4:00 am. His mother was still awake, but told him she was not angry with him. Later, when he could not get to sleep, Oskar went to her room, crying, and promised her he would get better if she did not hospitalize him. She comforted him, insisting that it was okay to feel sad about Dad, and that there was nothing wrong with him. She also confessed that she had spoken to Thomas Jr. before the building collapsed, and that he had lied to her, telling her he had made it out to the street and would be home soon. She described the lie as an expression of love, similar to Oskar's lie about the key, which she in turn pretended not to know about. In that moment, Oskar understood life as simultaneously simple and complicated. He made an inner peace with her, and told her he wanted her to fall in love again.
In bed later, he flipped through his scrapbook, Stuff that Happened to Me, and reversed the order of the images of the falling man (so that the man is moving up towards the building instead of down towards the ground). He imagined his father’s last day in reverse order, pretending that Thomas had never left for his meeting, and hence did not die in the attack. Instead, he remained safe with Oskar, recounting to his son the story of the Sixth Borough.
The scene at the cemetery serves as a symbolic second funeral. Oskar arrives with family in the same limo that brought them to the funeral two years earlier. Though they reverse the usual order, Thomas Sr. and Oskar perform all the steps associated with a funeral - digging up and burying a coffin. And yet this reversal is important. Instead of closing the coffin, they are opening it. It is an emotional climax, the moment Oskar has been attempting to reach throughout the entire novel.
Considering that it is a climax, the scene's unrealistic elements reinforce the novel's fable-like quality. Even with Gerald's help, the act of digging up a coffin would take far longer. Cemeteries have security officers, and caskets are usually encased in an outer coffin for protection from the elements. Many of the details associated with this scene strain credibility, and yet are in line with the novel's overall tone, which often favors a quirky alternate reality to pure naturalism.
Regardless of the scene's impracticality, however, it is central to Oskar's growth. By opening the coffin, he objectively confirms that neither Thomas Jr.'s body nor his sprit reside within. And yet Oskar must confront the intangible presence of his father there. The feeling he has is one he did not feel at the funeral two years earlier; he has learned to embrace the intangible, emotional aspect of life. When Thomas Sr. places his letters in the coffin, Oskar is confused but not turned off. Where he earlier might have mocked such a nakedly symbolic act, he here implicitly understands that such objectively unnecessary actions can achieve great ends. The letters serve as a symbol for the phantom connection that Oskar has learned to feel with his father, and by extension, people in general. The grave now means something to Oskar, as a symbol, where before it meant nothing.
This analysis is not to suggest that Foer dwells explicitly on the religious question of Thomas Jr.'s spirit. Oskar continues in his atheism, and certainly does not embrace the existence of a ghost-like spirit. However, he has opened himself so that a new belief system can take hold, wherein memories have the power often attributed to spirits. By thinking of his father this way, Oskar allows himself to focus on positive associations, rather than upon the pronounced negativity of the man's death.
And the most important manifestation of Oskar's growth comes in the final scene with his mother. In many ways, it is useful to think of his mother as an antagonist for most of the novel. Even when Oskar does not explicitly describe her as a villain (though he sometimes does), she is the most powerful force that could have ceded his quest at any time. When he learned that she was not his antagonist but was in fact his enabler, he had to confront the limitations of his worldview. And in this final scene, he shows a more mature ability to embrace life's contradictions, to accept that life does not always have answers. His grief is powerful and honest, but cannot be easily put away. Similarly, the positive memories of his father do not go away simply because that grief exists. He has come closer to embracing the tragic sense, the truth that sometimes things do not happen for a reason, and so in the face of this, we hold onto one another for comfort.
In this final scene with his mother, two important things happen. First, he goes to her as a child, crying when he cannot sleep. Considering his deliberately mature persona, it is quite moving when he accepts his helplessness. What he needs is not a further attempt to find some objective, external truth to his father's death, but simply his mother's embrace. He has to admit that he hurts, and that that itself is powerful and true. Secondly, he gives his mother permission to fall in love again. He has not transcended his grief by any means, but he has realized that people need to move forward lest they otherwise be consumed by the past.
In short, Oskar has avoided falling into the pitfalls that plagued his Grandma and Grandpa. He has learned early enough, largely through their intercession in his life, that we must always move forward, defining ourselves by life's continuing contradictions rather than by regrets over a past we never had the power to change anyway.
And yet, perhaps to honor the existence of such contradictions, the novel does not end on a happy note. Instead, it pays homage to the enduring power of grief. Employing his imagination to his scrapbook, Oskar creates an alternate reality where life on 09/11 ran in reverse. Like the Sixth Borough did, the falling man floats away from the ground, from his impending separation from the life of his friends and family. We are not to think that Oskar has remained lost in fantasy - the incident with the grave confirms that he has accepted the truth of his father's passing. However, his expression of nostalgia in this final scene, the wish expressed in the final line - "We would have been safe" - , his pronounced sadness, these together suggest that we might maturely accept the tragic truth of life, but still as humans have the capacity to wish that it was not so (326). This, perhaps, is the most profound contradiction of all.