I’ve been listening to Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes after burning through most of her videos this week. Her frank and unflinching approach to death is marvellous. Freak that I am, I’ve always found it odd that modern Western society shoves death aside and bewails it as though it were unnatural, an unacceptable failure of medicine to cure us of our mortality. Even as a teenager, I thought squeamish attitudes towards death were bizarre and counterproductive.
Keep in mind that I come from a very large extended family, most of whom are much older, especially on my mother’s side, where my mother was #9 of 12 children and I am (I think) #30 of 33 first cousins. Some of my first cousins are my parents’ age, and some of my second cousins are my age. As a result of these age gaps, I was exposed to illness and death when I was relatively young.
When I was seven, my maternal grandmother — my baba — lived with us for the last six months of her life. I wasn’t involved in her care, but I knew she wasn’t well. I remember her once crawling to the bathroom rather than asking for help. (The lady had 12 children and my grandfather died when his youngest was, I believe, around three or four years old. She had to have been tough.) She went into the hospital in the late fall and died exactly two weeks before Christmas.
I vaguely remember that I was playing with Christmas decorations when the news came home. I had no idea how to feel. We had lost pets, but this was my first experience of a human death. Everyone around me seemed to go on more or less normally, and I felt silly with my hands full of fabric pointsettas and garlands. Was I supposed to keep playing? Should I cry? I just remember being completely confused by the situation.
At the funeral home a few days later, someone (perhaps my mother, I don’t recall) took me up to baba’s casket and told me it was okay to kiss her, although I don’t think I did. I knew it was her body, lying quietly as though sleeping, but I knew that she would never wake up. It was her, but it wasn’t … her. But perhaps the most surreal aspect of the whole thing was how the adults talked and laughed as though my grandmother’s dead body wasn’t lying in plain sight only a few feet away.
After that, most of the funerals and memorials I attended took place when I was in my teens and early twenties. One aunt passed away in her sleep unexpectedly. Another aunt endured the slow, cruel ravages of cancer, and the vibrant, laughing woman I had always admired slowly disappeared into a withered husk and eventually fell silent. Yet another aunt succumbed to lung cancer after having already survived one cancer as well as a triple bypass — and none of it stopped her from smoking like a chimney. Clearly, stubbornness runs in the family.
And then there was the funeral for a baby girl, the daughter of a teenaged-mother whom I was friends with in high school. The infant seemed like such a happy little creature, but her mother was worried that she wasn’t eating enough. The doctors pooh-poohed these concerns until they found a grapefruit-sized tumour in the girl’s belly, which had compressed her internal organs, including her stomach. At seven months old, there wasn’t much of anything that medical technology could do — chemotherapy would probably kill her and it would not have been a gentle death. She died at home with her parents two months later.
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This week I’ve been binge-watching (well, listening to) Ask a Mortician and related videos. I managed to find the e-audiobook of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes at the Toronto Public Library, which was perfect because it meant that I didn’t have to (a) wait for the cd version to arrive at the nearest branch and then (b) get off my ass to pick it up.
The specific information and stories about death — both modern and historical — and about the death industry in general have been very informative and, in some cases, as deliciously bittersweet as dark chocolate. But I think what I appreciate most is Caitlin’s ability to embrace the macabre. Her experiences, curiosity, knowledge, and wisdom about death and dying helps demystify the death process and ties it back to the reason death happens at all, which is life.
Perhaps the most poignant moment for me in this book so far has been right in the middle of chapter 13, which discusses women’s historical role in caring for the bodies of the dead. I was embroidering my new cloak and thinking about making and decorating my own death shroud when the author camly stated “Every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life but also a death.”
I’ve always said that life is just a vector towards death, but Caitlin’s point draws the discussion away from the theoretical and reinvests the power of life and death in the corporeal. These bodies that live and love and fear are the same vessels that will carry us relentlessly towards our inevitable ends.
The denial of death is also the denial of life. Thinking forward to the day you will cease to be requires that you consider how you want to be remembered and, therefore, how you have lived your life. It’s a painful and terrifying step, but one that should be done sooner rather than later, when there is still time to become the person you want your loved ones to remember.
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P.S. While I have been thinking that I would like to be composted and turned into tree food, I am now wondering if I should be cremated so my ashes can be placed in a miniature longship that will be set ablaze and pushed out to sea (or maybe just Lake Ontario). Then again, maybe I should commission a small clinkerbuilt vessel to be buried in. In that case, I would like my loved ones to take my Viking sword to a blacksmith to be safely “killed” and buried with me.
So many decisions, so little time.