Monday, January 28, 2008

Denial About Death

So…. where were we? Oh yes….DENIAL. We were In Denial. About Death.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that in our culture-especially in this relatively 'young' culture of this country called the United States, we've virtually eliminated our opportunities to see or touch or talk about a body of someone we love who has died. It's become "impolite". It's "morbid curiosity" , "unnatural", "taboo". It's a manufactured cultural No-No.

I think this is literally crazymaking.

As my younger friends might express it...WTF?? Everybody dies. No matter what you think, how healthy you are, how spiritually aware, how 'good', how rich, how well fed, how physically fit, the fact is that 99.9% of us are going to die. ( I leave that small margin of possibility for the immortalists among us)

Death is not a sudden malicious disease or an unprecedented evil predicament. It's what happens. You get born, you live, you die. And generally, you leave your dead body behind. ( another small margin for the ascensionists and magicians among us)

What's odd is that my parents’ generation were actually on a cusp, or turning point of a very large change in the way people cared for their dead. What I mean is, they had actual childhood experiences of home or family funerals. But as they grew up, the custom and social ritual around death was drastically changing. The funeral industry was making huge inroads toward redefining what was ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘appropriate’ and ‘safe’- in terms of handling the body of one of our loved ones after death. And don’t forget the power of advertising….the lure of doing something ’new and improved’.

And too, in some ways it seemed that my parents had the task of proving how much better off they were than their parents. This often meant that they could ‘afford’ to pay more money for “professionals” to handle things that were previously handled by their frugal (and sometimes wiser) parents.

My father recalls that his grandmother’s wake was a family affair, carried out at home. Her body was prepared ( washed and dressed) by the women of the family, a casket was procured from a local woodworker, food was organized and provided by family and neighbors and his grandmother was ‘laid out’ or ‘waked’ in the parlor. A touching detail he shared with me is that after everyone had gone home-leaving the kitchen and dishes all cleaned and put away-my father and his father got out blankets and pillows and made makeshift beds of chairs put together so that they could sleep in the parlor with his grandma in her casket.
There was no squeamishness, no fear. He said to me ‘That’s just how we did it”. And the next morning, folks came to carry the casket to the church for her funeral.

He’s always talked about ‘a plain pine box’ for himself, but we talked seriously about his own funeral arrangements last summer. He joked, at first, about wanting one of my burial shrouds but then made it clear to my brothers and I that we were to call the local funeral home and have them do “the same as they did for your mother”. The standard procedure. Embalming, limited viewing hours, a metal casket, a Catholic mass, and burial in the local veteran’s cemetery. I wanted to ask him ‘what happened to doing it all at home’? But it seemed like too loaded a question.
"What happened" is what I'll talk about in my next post.

Thanks for all your comments. and yes, as one of you said, this is a conversation *dying* to happen. I think we're all just 'dying' to talk about Death. Feel free to do that here.


Friday, January 25, 2008

My Mission...should I choose to accept it.

Hello. Welcome to Grave Natters...a place where you and I can think and talk about the way we think and talk about Death. Those of you in England will know this but for those who don't, "natter" means chat, talk, converse, etc. - and grave....well that's obvious.

My mission ( since I have chosen to accept it) is to;

Change the Way Western Culture Faces Death.

First of all, Western Culture in general doesn’t face death. We skirt the issue. We hate endings. We refuse to let go to age to fade away, to stop, to admit defeat, to “surrender” to Death. To Die.

Death Greg Palmer calls it ”The Trip of a Lifetime” ( check out his book and his public tv show exploring various cultural practices regarding death).

Being a child of the 60s I personally resonate with this way of seeing death. “The TRIP of a lifetime.” Indeed. -Makes it something to prepare anticipate. Something to look forward to!!

Here’s a story I have about death. It might be similar to one that you have.

Eleven years ago, while my mom was in the process of dying from cancer, my father was doing a lot of things to keep her going…’keep her strength up’ “keep a good attitude’ “don’t give up’. He liked her to have lots of visitors and put it out that she wanted people to come and keep her company. The truth was that all this activity and forward motion was confusing to her. It seemed to me that she actually wanted to just let it all go, bit by bit.

She wanted long periods of silence. She wanted small tastes rather than big meals to eat. She wanted someone to sit with her, hold her hand or even lie on the bed and spoon her…cradle her. Not do a lot of talking.

She was cold.
She was achy.

She was a little confused.

She was in pain.

And then, every once in a while she’d open her eyes and crack a joke! Or make a very shrewd observation about someone or some situation. (she was always known for that anyway..) Or initiate a “project” (well, at least talk about one).
But these bursts of energy were just that. Short bursts. She was dying and she knew it , I knew it, but it seemed like my father didn’t.

At one point my mom wanted me to talk to my father about limiting the number of her visitors. She hated the idea of having to somehow ‘entertain’ them, or to always be ‘ready’ for them. They came at their own schedule, not hers and it was hard on her, thinking that they might arrive at any time.

So one day I said to my father that my mother needed more silence. That she was in a deep period of reflection. I said I’d spent most of my adult life exploring deep states of consciousness and that it seemed to me that she was IN one. I said;

“Dad, Mom needs more quiet reflective time and less excitement and visitors. She’s in the middle of one of the most important, deep, spiritual experiences of her life.” I felt so wise and helpful. I thought I'd explained it so well! He'd get it and change accordingly. What happened was that he looked at me with disdain and disbelief and, shaking his head, he opened his mouth and said;

“No she isn’t!”

(He said it like, ‘What?! How did you ever come up with THAT idea? ‘)

Well, I was a bit taken aback, but it also let me know what I was dealing with.

In a word, it was DENIAL.

It did stop me short, there. I had to take a good look at it, past my anger and incredulity (inside of which there was some denial of my own...). I had to really see where he was coming from.

Denial. Yup. That was it. A classic case. Not his fault. Culturally supported denial of Death. And I already knew from personal experience that a person in denial will deny that they are in denial. So really, there wasn't much to say to him in that moment. I just had a lot to sit with.

I'll talk more on this in my next post. I'm glad you're here. Feel free to share your own thoughts. I might not answer every one but I'll read them all for sure.