Are We Too Distant from Death?

In the course of the last fifty years, death has become a very strange industry in the mainstream white United States. At the same time that we lavishly display our dead and spend tens of thousands of dollars on elaborate ceremonies for them, we also distance ourselves from them; I am reminded in some senses of the parent who brings home a toy from a trip and tells the children to go play with it in the other room. The rituals of death have become about the creation of a deep distance from not just death itself but also dying and the ongoing experience of death, thereby creating a culture where people readily can avoid it.

Have we, by distancing ourselves from death, only created a situation in which we fear it even more deeply, and have a harder time coping with it when it does come? Are we perhaps doing a disservice to ourselves and our dead by refusing to confront death head-on? As a culture, we insist that death be cleanly packaged and put away by professionals, and that those in mourning carry on their business quietly and without a fuss, returning to business as soon as possible rather than dragging the affair on and making everyone uncomfortable. This may not be the most sound choice for us a society, much though many seem to think it represents the modern and right way.

There was a time when most people died at home, with family and friends around them. People stopped by to visit the dead, and many people, including young adults, were familiar with death as an intimate part of their lives. They didn’t need to be coached in what to expect at the deathbed because they had seen it before: the loss of motor and bowel control, confusion, sleepiness, emotional distress, pain, the death rattle, the groaning and creaking noises bodies make as they transition from life to death.

That began to shift when people were moved to hospitals and life expectancies (thankfully) increased due to the introduction of medical innovations. With longer lives and greater medical interventions also came, of course, the birth of intensive care units, and the liminal state of death for many patients found therein, those who cling to life with extensive support, who are only allowed guests during limited hours, who live strange sorts of half-lives in the shadows of the hospital. It’s less common to bring family and friends to the deathbed, and those who are permitted tend to be much more limited.

There was a time when members of the community would, by nature, visit the dying. Now, that is not so much the case, with some exceptions. Thus, instead of being constantly exposed to various stages of death and dying (and the occasional recovery from severe illnesses), many people live isolated from the intense reality of death until it’s kicking them in the face, usually with the death of a parent or grandparent. That makes a particularly traumatic introduction to what death is actually life; if you’ve never given water to the dying, or heard a death rattle, or watched someone flush with humiliation when she pisses herself in bed, your parents are not the best people to start having those experiences with.

We are isolated from death by the nurses and amazing caregivers who move through hospitals and private homes, taking care of patients in their last hours. It’s not uncommon for people to die utterly alone or only in the company of strangers these days, something that would have been an anathema to previous generations, and in part, this is because we fear death. And we fear death, in part, because we have not been exposed to it. We fear that which we do not know, and for many middle class white people in the United States, death is an unknown, instead of an entity who may be a familiar friend come to end suffering, or a cruel thief come to steal someone away too soon.

Most of us do not care for our own dead today, preferring instead to turn them over to the cool and practiced hands of professionals. This final act of love, which was once an important part of the rituals surrounding death, is absent from so many modern ceremonies in the US, and it, too, speaks to our fear of death and our unwillingness to confront it. Does a two year old child need to watch while her family lays her grandmother in a winding sheet? No, unless she asks and her parents think it’s appropriate for her. But would a family’s perspectives on death and experience of the grieving process change if they took care of the deceased together? Quite possibly.

Sometimes people make comments about how sitting by the side of the dead and dying can be a profound or life-changing experience—I largely haven’t found it so, but I have found it an important one. It’s given me a chance to talk to people, to say things in the quiet hush of home or hospital, to whistle in the dark. I have cracked jokes with the lucid dying and I have sat with people who have no idea I’m there, and who are long past the time when they will ever wake up to recognise my presence, let alone care that I am there. I have washed the dead and dressed the dead (and oh, how dead bodies fight you), and it has brought me more of a sense of completeness and ending, finality, than letting someone else handle these things.

This is not necessarily the same for everyone, but I have to wonder if more immediate experiences of death in smaller, more manageable doses might be better for many of us. If death could be less terrifying and unwieldy if we know and understood it in all its guises, and had been intimate with it instead of running firmly in the opposite direction. Death, after all, does not fear us.