In 1900, life expectancy in the USA was 47 years; most people died at home, often in the company of friends or family. Since most were also born at home, birth and death were woven into the fabric of life.
And death was a familiar thread in the seamless garment of life. Go to any church or municipal cemetery with graves prior to the 1920s and you’ll immediately notice how many young lie buried there. Young adults, teenagers, young children, infants are mingled among those with longer lives. In the not so distant past, death was certainly mourned as “the last enemy,” but it was also familiar, acknowledged, and a more frequent visitor interposing itself into the normal routine of life. While it was as unwelcome a guest as today, it was not shied away from or denied, and few sought to put lipstick on the pig to make it more palatable or less real. Indeed, oftentimes it was those closest to the dead who cared for them, treated their bodies with dignity and respect, and did all in their power to express the same love and care to the dead that was shown while they were alive.
In another time, the funeral home was not where a body was taken, any more than a pregnant woman would have been delivered to the hospital to give birth. Death, like birth and most of life, was an affair of home, hearth, and heart.
My maternal grandmother, who died in 1955 (I was 4 years old and hers was the first funeral and burial I attended), was the wife of a Southern sharecropper. To make ends meet, he also drove the school bus; she sold butter and eggs.
And she dressed the dead. When someone in the community died, she was contacted to clean and bathe the body, and fill the body’s cavities with absorbent material. She dressed it and made it ready for viewing and the final journey to the grave. She was a neighbor being neighborly to those in need and did it honorably and humbly. And I suspect that as she dressed each body, with the help of others or in solitude, she was greatly aware that one day she also would die, and someone would tend to her. In the quiet conversation of a few at work or in silence as she worked alone, she pondered the mystery and wonder of life and of herself, and assessed how she was living the measure of her days.
In 1960, my paternal grandmother died. True, the funeral home was called to the hospital where she had died to take her body to be embalmed. But when that undertaking was accomplished, she was brought home and laid out in the living room, with her piano to the right of the casket and the sofa to the left. Visitation was held (ironically, but appropriately) in the living room; I remember some sitting on the piano stool and others on the sofa, talking with family, friends and neighbors who came to pay their respects.
When all the guests had departed for the evening my grandfather, my parents and I went upstairs to go to bed. Grandma was in the sleep of death in the living room; we slept a briefer spell overnight in the room above. But from that day forward, I was never afraid of the dead; after all, the dead person downstairs had loved me in life, so why would she haunt me with terror now?
In my previous post (For the Life of Me, Part 1), I presented a variety of ways funerals and disposing of the dead can be done more simply, economically, and without as much involvement of strangers. I suspect that some (many?) may have found those suggestions troubling, unnerving, unsettling, and producing a bit of squeamishness. I doubt any would have produced the same responses among most folks from previous generations.
For them, caring for the dead was the last fine measure of devotion, care, friendship or family obligation. Tending a loved one was work too important to be left to strangers, as much as possible.
Such work is still holy, to be cherished, and not necessarily left to strangers. True, it is unfamiliar to us, to keep company with the dead. It is unsettling, disquieting, a potential cause for anxiety or stress.
But so is being a true friend or professing love; staying married or surviving divorce or giving birth; learning to ride a bike or getting on the bus for the first day of school; letting your child go off to camp or drive alone behind the wheel of a car; leaving home for college or going on a job interview; having a fight with someone you love or asking for forgiveness; dealing with sickness or failure or heartache; growing old or coming to the end of our days. None of those life experiences is easy; few of them can be avoided. Coming to grips with them is hard, yet each one provides unexpected potential for blessing and growth.
To face and embrace life’s challenges is to live larger, deeper, more fully. It is, to use an image of C.S. Lewis, to become men (and women) with chests.
It is to live with courage. Interestingly, courage comes from the French word for “heart.” To live with courage is to live both bravely and with love.
And it is to live with humility. Humility – a word that derives from the same root as low, down to earth, reminding us that we are mortal, earthbound, earth born, in-spirited, divine mud pies who also one day will wither, die and be blown away like the dust we essentially are. We are also stardust, but either way we are dust and to dust we shall return.
A friend has wisely said that to be an adult is to know that traveling down life’s road you have to look at the road-kill; you can’t avert your eyes, but you have to look unflinchingly, and keep going.
Perhaps if we learned to live with dying and the dead, we would be less afraid to look it straight in the eye and not abandon the dead to go it alone unattended, unnoticed, left to fend for themselves when perhaps they most need the company of friends and family, and not left in the hands of strangers.
How do we learn not to fear death, the dead, or deny the reality of our mortality?
- St. Benedict, whose Rule has guided the life of Christian monastic communities for 15 centuries, wisely teaches us to remember every day that we are going to die. Or as Steve Jobs put it, live each day as if it’s your last, and one day you’ll be right – and hopefully you will be at peace as you encounter a familiar face.
2. There is blessing in talking with family or friends about life and death, what truly matters to us, what frightens or brings us joy, what we wish to bequeath them (blessings and values, and not just the velvet painting of Elvis hanging in the garage), naming our wishes and desires for how we would like to be remembered, or what kinds of rituals at our death we think would honor our lives.
3. In my last months of ministry, I began a new practice I wish I had done from the beginning. Whenever I was called to the home or hospital where someone was actively dying or had died, as often as I was able I stayed with the body until s/he was removed to the morgue or hearse. When possible I also helped to move the corpse into the body bag and accompanied it on the way. Each time the family expressed deep gratitude; I don’t think they knew how important it was to have their loved one accompanied and not left alone until I made to offer to remain. Each time I helped to move a body, it was an honor and an act of simple care and devotion. Each time I was left in the silence with the dead, I could not help but ponder my own life and imagine myself one day lying on a bed, breathless and still. To face the mystery of life and death is a holy thing that indeed tends to focus the mind, heart and soul.
4. We show up at the funeral, the memorial service, the crematorium or crypt, wherever the final acts will take place to become familiar with the reality of death, to prepare for our own dying and funeral, and to accompany the grieving and the dead on the last journey of life. It’s the least we, the living, can do.
5. Finally I must make confession. For me as a person of faith who sees most clearly the face of God in the face of Christ, I learn daily not to fear death by going deeper into relationship and friendship with the God of the living and the dead, whom I have learned only wants good for me. Just as I learned not to fear the dead because it was my beloved grandmother asleep in death in the living room while I slept upstairs, so I am on the road to learning to trust the living God who never slumbers, never sleeps, who comforts us in our distresses, heals all our diseases, and like a mother cradles us in loving arms and sings us to sleep so we can rest unafraid until the morning comes.
Next Up: Is It Our Denial of Death’s Reality?