The Sanitizing of Death

I recently finished reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyeswhich is an excellent read for those of you who are interested in a glimpse into the modern funeral industry, and into alternative approaches to death and dying. It’s not a polemic, nor is it a pat panacea, but rather an acknowledgement of the fact that death and dying in the United States are complicated — and Caitlin Doughty notes, as Jessica Mitford did nearly 50 years before, that what death looks like has changed radically, and not necessarily for the better. Don’t mistake Smoke Gets in Your Eyes for the 21st century American Way of Deaththough — the two books approach the subject from different angles and in fact Doughty has some thoughtful criticism of Mitford’s legendary book.

But the points Doughty makes are important, informed by her interactions with the dead first as a crematory worker, then as a mortuary school student, then as member of the Order of the Good Death, which is working to reform the way we think about and interact with death. The work of the organisation is to get people to think about what death really is, to invite people to face death and make it a conversation instead of something to be avoided and feared, which is challenging subject matter for many of us.

Many people have never seen a dead body — or, if they have, it’s been a body carefully and meticulously prepared by an undertaker who’s been trained at mortuary college to create something doll-like and inoffensive, with a resemblance to the decedent but not the reality. The dead become plastic, abstract figures in their caskets (always caskets, never coffins, with their ominous, unmistakeable shape), something from which people can quickly distance themselves and move on.

But the problem runs much deeper than that. Many of us are afraid to talk about both how we want to die and what will happen to our bodies after death, leaving friends and family bewildered when it comes to dealing with the end of our lives. It’s as though by pretending, we can act like the inevitable isn’t really going to happen, that everything will be fine. We fear death instead of facing it and taking it on with dignity. Thus, we don’t discuss the disposition of our remains, the kind of ceremony we want to have, who we want to officiate — and those who survive scramble after our deaths to get rid of the body, to turn it into something sterile and distant so they can quickly ‘get over it,’  as this is the nature of the American way of grief, too, to package it up and put it away somewhere.

Facing death isn’t just about talking with friends and family about different funeral routes, whether they be traditional or alternative. There’s nothing wrong with preferring that a funeral home handle a death, and that the ceremonies surrounding a death be conducted as they have in the US for decades. But refusing to acknowledge alternatives, and denying people the opportunity to interact with death as both an inevitability and an old friend, is damaging, and troubling. Allowing members of the family, along with friends, to sit with the dying can be an important part of death and dying, allowing people to process and come to terms with events and providing an opportunity to interact honestly and lovingly with the dead.

Sitting with the dead during a laying out period can also provide its own mode of closure, which is one reason so many cultures have a laying out tradition, in which the bodies of the dead are washed and shrouded by family members and friends, who watch over the dead for a day (or more) as people come to visit and bring tributes. The dead are displayed in coffins and in some cultures people leave presents or meaningful objects for the dead to take with them, in a gesture of acknowledgement to shared history and past — the dead may be gone, and part of us goes with them, but we also carry part of them away, too.

The act of digging a grave, or observing while one is dug, of lowering the dead into the ground, of helping to fill in the grave — without a vault or other barrier to slow the natural order of things, of planting a tree or shrub or a large rock over the deceased, can be cathartic and powerful. Particularly when joined with an approach to death that isn’t filled with fear and a certain amount of hatred, but, rather, acceptance. The dead made their time to say their goodbyes, knowing that their time on Earth was coming to a close, which left the people around them prepared, instead of flailing in the wake of death to come to terms with it. This is a marked shift from traditional death, where people often seem taken unawares and caught suddenly by an inevitable death.

We must rethink the way we approach death, especially with a growing older generation. With age comes, eventually, death. Along the way, disease is often a key component as well, which means that people may need to make difficult decision about how to treat disease, considering which options are available and how they want to proceed. In the end, though, all of us will die — and if we continue allowing our fear of death to dictate our relationship to it, we’re going to find it impossible to cope with the growing numbers of people who will die in the coming decades. Death will leap from an abstract to a terrifying reality, and it will not get any easier each time, because in this sense, custom does not mean that people become accustomed.

Photo: Graveyard, ASJ8, Flickr