This week I've been reading Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty, mortician and founder of The Order of the Good Death.
Death has been on my menu lately. You might say, it always has. While my sweet husband didn't attend a funeral until he was in his 20's, death has been a regular presence in my life. When I was about a year old, my mom's father died. On the day of his death, I ate a tube of his Ben-Gay, and my dad had to give me syrup of Ipecac.
He died from cancer.
When I was seven, my dad's mother died. From cancer.
When I was a little older, my brother's best friend died. From cancer.
Then a great aunt, aunt, cousin, friend. All from cancer.
In 2006, my grandma died in front of me, my mom, my brother, my dad, in our driveway, on the way to the hospital.
So not a surprise, I guess, that over the years I tucked things away, ideas for my own funeral. It came into sharp relief when Matt was diagnosed, and I thought, "I really need to know what I want here." So here it is, for everyone to know:
I'm still deciding if I want to be cremated or have a green burial. But I want my remains, whatever form they take, to end up in a place with horses. I want a ceremony outside. I want selections from Leaves of Grass, Watership Down, and The Velveteen Rabbit to be read by people I love. These are texts I find comforting, and hope others do too. I love horses. I love outside.
I'm not dying now. Not more than anyone else is.
But all of us will die. And yet, when someone says "I started planning my funeral," as many do after a cancer diagnosis, tongues are clucked, and the person is told "Don't go to that place." Well, why the fuck not?
In her book, Doughty delves into the fascinating world of modern American death. The bizarre detachment we have as a culture from it, and how our funerary practices support and perpetuate that. How, despite our love of violent movies and zombies-as-trope, we are terrified of the corpse.
In graduate school, I spent a bit of time with antebellum American death. One historian that I quoted in a paper on the subject said, and I paraphrase: Sex and death for the Victorians are like sex and death for us, only flipped. Our culture shuns death, and it overt about sex, while the Victorians shunned sex and were overt about death.
And we all know how fucked up the Victorians were about sex.
Walt Whitman was a medic during the Civil War, and he writes about piles of limbs, and dying soldiers whose hands he held. In this light, contemporary Emily Dickinson suddenly becomes not a reclusive, morbid early-Goth girl, but product of her time (in addition to a genius).
It is not bad to think about death. It doesn't mean you are weird, or wrong, or not nice. I think it is unhealthy to act like it will never happen. Because, as they say, it's one of only two guarantees in life.
I believe, more than anything, in the talking cure. So let the first step be this remarkable book.