The Birth of Death

Although I find the expression “passed away” a weak and distasteful euphemism for the term “died”, I admit that I myself have used it many times, when deep down I’d much rather have not. Hard to say whether I acquiesced for the comfort of my audience, or because on some level I’m a coward and lack the integrity to put my money where my mouth is.

This needs to stop.

I am so weary of the ways in which this current, first-world culture regards death. I am weary of the way in which we neglect the subject. I am weary of the trepidation with which most of us approach death. It drives me nuts. No, I take that back. It doesn’t just drive me nuts. You know what? It makes me angry. Seriously.

Here is the point at which I must express myself through a mild rant….

Do we not all understand how cemeteries pollute the air and waste people’s time with all that goddam lawn-mowing and weed-whacking? Do we not understand how embalming is horrible for the environment, and how it will not keep your loved one ‘as is’ unto eternity? And why do we just assume once a loved one is dead, that their body must be immediately whisked away from the premises, as if it was now a loathsome thing to be avoided?

You’d be surprised how many things around the experience of death are either taken for granted or are never even questioned in the first place.

Funny how you plan the shit out of everything in your life, yet when a family member dies, you’re all of a sudden thrust into the middle of an administrative vortex, making decisions with no prior information – and no bargaining power whatsoever. Death deserves as much planning as anything else. After all – this could well be one of the biggest ticket items of your life.

Depends on whether or not you’ve made some plans.

Once, while I was sick and confined to my bed for a few days, I set out on a little research project. I’d long had a list of unanswered questions which I could never justify carving out the time necessary to address. This was at the top of the list: Is it legal to be buried on your own property? There simply wasn’t enough online information at the time, so I found a couple of funeral directors and got them on the phone. I called different states, too. And I took notes. The consensus was “yes”.

When my boy was about eight years old, we’d had a conversation about death and where the bodies of dead people go. He’d accompanied me many times to the town cemetery on the hill, following along as I meandered through the headstones, matching up family members and imagining aloud the details of life back then. He’d understood that these were people just like the two of us, whose homes had been right here in Greenfield. He’d understood the concept of once-living people now lying in repose under the sod. And, as we’d seen a whole lot of dead animals at various levels of decomposition on the side of the road or even in our chicken run, none of this death talk was inherently unfamiliar to my son. In fact, I think it was precisely because he’d grown up like this – with a mom like me, and on a farm where creatures often die without warning – that he came to have his own feelings about death and what to do with a body once it was no longer living.

My young son told me that he himself wanted to be laid out in the woods. He told me that he should be put into a slight depression in the ground, and covered with leaf litter. I admired his thinking. We never wished to waste anything here; scraps always went to the chickens, paper and such went to the burn bin, and the resulting ashes were subsequently shoveled onto the garden or into the woods. (We called this method “going back to God”.) I told him how much I loved the idea, but that strangely, it was likely illegal. He protested adamantly, driven to the point of tears. He insisted it was the right way to put your body back into nature. He told me that it was the only way he wanted his body to end up. I calmed him by saying that I would do everything I could to make sure it would happen.

A dear friend of mine saw to his own burial in advance of his death. A craftsman and a farmer, he built his own casket and even dug the hole with his backhoe, right there on his property, not far from his house. In his mid-thirties he had been diagnosed with Leukemia, and after a couple of years it was clear that he wasn’t going to live much longer. While he still had enough physical strength left, he set about to make his final arrangements. My life at that time was in Chicago, and he was then living with his wife and three children in the hills of upstate New York, so sadly I wasn’t able to be there. I heard he hosted quite a party. And afterwards, he began his decline in earnest. Then he died, was put into the casket he had made for himself, and was buried in the grave he’d dug. His friends backfilled the hole. Can you imagine anything more perfect? Me, I cannot.

I hold this man’s ending as an impeccable model of closure.

It seems simply crazy to me that we in the first world are so forthright about every last goddam detail of our lives, broadcasting our dramas on public platforms and rushing to share our every insight and opinion, and yet when it comes to the only experience which we all have in common – aside from being born – we are virtually silent as a collective. Sure, there are groups – there are always groups – who come together to discuss death and its related concerns – but as a society on the whole we are not very comfortable with the subject.

I’ve hosted a handful of Death Cafes. Just the idea that there is an international group founded simply for the purpose of providing places for people to convene and talk about death is proof enough that the need for such a forum exists. And yet still, even among the most progressive populations, this is just not a well-discussed topic.

In future, I mean to change this if I can.

Many years ago, after my first job playing music for essentially forgotten and dying people in the most low-budget of nursing homes, it occurred to me that many of these people were the last of their clan, and they faced dying alone. I began a little inquiry, asking the workers when people usually died – what time of the day or night – and how they went. Was someone there with them? (There is such a thing as “active dying” and health care professionals can usually tell when a person is entering that phase.) Almost every one of these residents died alone, many in the wee hours of the night. Few were ever accompanied by another human. I asked if there was such a job as sitting with someone when they died.

They told me that there was not.

Well, as it turned out, there actually was such an occupation. And while I had experienced a short moment of elation in thinking that I’d just invented the new vocation of “death doula”, I soon learned that there were folks who’d already navigated this terrain. Turned out a “death doula” was actually a thing. But there was a punchline: it wasn’t a thing for just anyone. It was a service available only to a privileged population. There was no money to pay someone to sit with a dying person in a poorhouse of elder care.

This is such a heartbreaking reality, and it’s long had me wondering what I might possibly do to help improve the situation. As I see it, the best contribution I can make at present is to share my thoughts on death and the dying.

I do believe that one day things will be different. That one day our culture will place more value on frank and open end-of-life discussions. But personally, I think it’s going to take many decades. And it’s going to take folks like me who are ready to help start the conversation.

So friends, please consider this post to be the birth of a discussion on death.

Endings of Things

It’s been a week. Threw my back out, became bedridden and immobile, saw our oldest hen die and managed to get back on my feet in time to play piano for my son’s school musical. And yesterday, Martha, a woman whom I think of as my second mother (it was she who taught me how to read music), was taken to the hospital for a heart attack. I have a haunting sense that she may not be around much longer.

That has me in turn thinking about my own parents. Although my father has aged quite visibly just over this past year and shows a growing sense of disconnection from the world around him, I still can’t imagine him dying. Him not being here.Yet if he continues as he’s been living the past few years, he’ll dwindle to a mere wisp of himself before long. And my mom – although she’s got the drive and always seems to be taking care of everyone else, she herself isn’t in top health. She’s good at showing the world that she’s tough and isn’t slowing down, but I see how her knees and her back hurt her. It’s been a few years now since I’ve seen her stand erect. She walks bent over, one hand always resting on her lower back as if by some chance holding it there might alleviate the constant pain.  Yet in spite of these signs, for some reason it’s still easy for me to believe she and my father will always be around. Dad’s own mother lived to be a hundred, and Mom just seems too on the ball to die. But as I look at the numbers reality begins to sink in. We all know death is coming at some point in the not too distant future; after all we Conants met with the estate attorney recently to get our affairs in order. So in some way we’ve all given a nod to the topic. But in our waspish, depression-era informed, keep it to yourself sort of way we’re all avoiding a head-on approach to the subject.

When Martha dies, she will be the last of my parents close friends and peers to go, and it will surely shake their world. But how will they react? Will they be stoic? How afraid will it make them? Are they afraid now? Is Martha afraid? Martha believes that when we die, we die. That there’s nothing more. That might give her a good reason to be afraid as she lies in her hospital bed tonite. Martha is a very no-nonsense woman and makes no bones about telling you how she thinks things are. She is so powerful a woman and is so absolutely convinced that she is right about all things, that I daren’t tell her that my personal beliefs about what happens after death are quite different. I guess I want to maintain her respect, and in the final days don’t want her writing me off as a romantic dreamer or religious fanatic. At least Martha has told us her feelings on the matter. But in my cards-to-our-chest family we never talk about such things. It’s too intimate. And the thought of having a conversation with my parents about what they think occurs after their deaths makes me quite uncomfortable. These are just not things we talk about. I’m almost embarrassed thinking about it.

When Ruthie, the second-to-last peer of my parents was on her death bed several years ago, I longed to tell her I loved her. But our relationship didn’t make that a comfortable thing to say. There were so many other things I’d wanted to say too, but again, the way in which we’d historically related to each other made me squeamish about speaking up. I did however, find it in me to hold her hand as she lay in bed, and I remember looking at her, meeting her eyes. I also remember feeling self-conscious about it, and looking away quickly. She died the next day. I felt heartbroken that I wasn’t brave enough to speak to her as I’d wanted, to look her in the eye as she’d wanted. I told myself that her death would teach me to be brave. Many times I’ve thought of Ruthie when I’ve had to challenge myself to speak honestly, to express my love to people. “Be brave”, I think to myself, and I remember Ruthie’s eyes on that last day. I need to be brave and let Martha know how much I love her. How important she’s been in my life. I need to make sure my parents know how much I love them. I must be brave.

I’m at an age when many of my peers – and most friends a decade or more older – have lost a parent. Yet it seems unfathomable that I should lose either of mine. It’s a strange sort of dichotomy; I can’t believe my parents will die, yet I’ve known peers to die long before their time. I once experienced the loss of a dear friend who was just a few years older than me. He was diagnosed with his cancer and died all within the span of nine months. I remember the pain was intense, heavy and unrelenting in those first months after his death. I’ve also experienced the loss of three people I considered family – all peers of my parents, including Martha’s husband – and although my heart broke at each departure, it was softened by knowing the old age to which they’d lived and the fullness of the lives they’d had. It had seemed to be the right time for them to go. But when it comes to one’s own parents, is there ever such a thing as the right time to say goodbye?

I don’t know why death is so on my mind tonite. Perhaps having found a cluster of Felix’s feathers under the maple tree – evidence that marked the spot of his actual demise – has begun this line of contemplation. And Martha’s weakened state, this too adds to my mood. Martha is a strong, matriarchal woman. She is famous in her circle for being knowing precisely where every last item in her large, historic farm house resides, despite the fact that she can no longer see those articles for herself. (We always joke that you must know your cardinal directions if you’re to work for Martha, as this is how she describes their precise location). She is legendary. It just seems as if Martha can’t die. She’s beat so much, it seems she can easily beat death too. A stroke some thirty years ago may have prevented her from driving a tractor or playing piano again, but it didn’t keep her from driving her car. Instead, she had her car retrofitted to drive with her one good side. She was slowed but not stopped by any means. She’s had several heart attacks and has all but lost her sight, yet still she keeps going.

Although Martha never had children of her own, she has been a mother to many, many children here in Greenfield. Tiny kids from the trailer park just to the south of her farm would find their way down the dirt road to her house. Martha would give them chores and assign them little household tasks. “The glass goes on the south end of the cupboard on the east wall of the kitchen, love” she might say. The kitchen at the farm – this is what we all call the place, “the farm” – was an epicenter for many local children, my brother and myself very much included in this group. It was there we learned to bake, to grind coffee, to make a braid, to look up a wildflower in a field guide, to build a fire in the Franklin stove, to give a newborn lamb a bottle. Martha keeps her vigil in this kitchen still (until just yesterday). Every day she sits in her chair, lifeline pendant around her neck, listening to public radio, her faithful black hound dog Maisey at her feet. Every day except the dozen or so days that she’s spent in the hospital these past few months. It’s her wish to die in her home, not the hospital. She seems so weak now. I pray she’ll make it back in time.

Tonight I feel shaky. I’m afraid of the losses that are coming. Am I ready? As I lay bedbound earlier this week, I had a conversation with my mother about where I thought I might like to be buried one day. It wasn’t quite so morbid as it sounds, as I’ll explain. Driving back from the raptor show the day before (where I’d thrown out my back), I passed the home of an old friend who’d died years ago. He had died of Leukemia. When he knew his death was likely coming soon, he made his own coffin and had his wife bury him in their garden. I liked that idea a lot. I want my body going back to the earth, not masked in harmful chemicals and then shut off from the world in a concrete vault. To me, that is something that is done only for the living. And I believe it is an affront to nature. How vain, how conceited, how wrong. I want to return – truly return – to the earth from which I came. What a dead end – literally! – to lay entombed, unused, wasted. If my body will no longer be of any use to my friends and family, may it yet be of some other good use…

Having some time in bed with no ability to move, I spent some time surfing around, following threads of ideas that I’d not previously had the time to indulge in. One of those was death; just what exactly do I need to do when one of my parents dies? How do I get a death certificate? What exactly are the logistics involved here? It had occurred to me more than a few times that I had no idea what happened after someone died – and that a person is not exactly in the best frame of mind to make the best decisions after such an event. Yeah, I know that’s what funeral homes are for – but if I’m currently of sound mind and body, why not learn about the process now, before it becomes urgent? Seems a better way to approach death. And so I had a conversation not only with my mother, but also with a nationally respected figure in the funeral industry. I’d emailed her a question regarding the consequences of breaking the NY state law requiring burial grounds be at least 1,600 feet from a house. (Why? Because I’ve found a lovely spot on our property for a potential family burial ground.) Would they exhume me? Fine my survivors? It proved to be a challenging question, and in the end, the largest concern she’d had was one of obtaining a death certificate. I know lots of docs, so finding one to come to the house (presuming I die in my home), pronounce me dead and sign the form won’t be an obstacle. Knowing damn well that my old friend Will didn’t measure the distance from his house to his garden when he planned for his own burial, I take some confidence in assuming no one will take my survivors to task on my resting sight.

This conversation opened up the discussion of where mom and dad wanted to be buried. Martha is donating her body to the Albany Medical Center, as Ruthie did. Mom tells me that Martha’s husband Frank is in the veteran’s cemetery just north of the Saratoga Battleground. And since dad is a vet (Korean War) both of them are entitled to free cremation and interment there. While the place may be pretty, and yes, there might be a nice view of the Vermont hills, I have no emotional connection to the place. So it doesn’t sit right quite with me. But I know that ultimately, it really doesn’t matter. Once your body is gone, it’s just a matter of disposal. If it gives mom and dad some comfort to know they’ll be there – then really, that’s fine. As for me, I’d much rather know that every molecule I was made of went right back to the service of something constructive and evolving. And I know that the microbes will be happy to set to work right away, whisking my remains into wildflower food. But again, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I’m ok with whatever gives my surviving loved ones the most peace. Given that my son may likely be at the helm of my funeral, I’m pretty sure he’ll go with the backyard field of daisies approach over the gated cemetery thing.

I had to get some bread from our chest freezer in the basement today. But I knew that Molly was there. Because of my recent back trouble I wasn’t able to dig a hole for her, so I set her there to keep for later. I asked Elihu if he’d come with me; it was too sad for me to do alone. He scolded me, and rightly so. “Mommy, it’s not Molly anymore! It’s just a dead bird!” Yeah, I know. But still. Man, am I all mixed up about this death stuff.

I may be feeling a little mixed up tonight, but nonetheless I am certain of these things: I must be brave and tell the people I love exactly how I feel. I know that we don’t simply die, but we continue to evolve and grow, leaving behind this difficult, earthly classroom. And I know that while death isn’t an end, it will end up breaking my heart. But I’ll make it through, just like everyone else.

Although life might sometimes appear to indicate otherwise, I do believe it will all be ok in the end. I am certain of this. After all, it is an ending that makes a beginning possible.