The American way of death
My wife and I recently met with our lawyer to update our wills. This, by the way, is a good idea for everyone. Remember the guy with the hit record of a graduation speech that began and ended, "Whatever you do, use sun block"? Let me paraphrase him: "Whatever you do, make a will." According to a 2010 Forbes Magazine survey, 65 percent of American adults don't have one. And if you don't have one, you probably won't take this advice either.
No matter … that little exercise started me reminiscing about memorable funerals. Top of my list is a grandmother, who insisted on having her wake in her living room. That her house was across from the parish church made that a practical idea. For her, it was a matter of being laid out the old fashioned way. Older folks at that wake recalled an earlier time, when the corpse might be propped up to have a last shot of whiskey poured down his throat, or even hoisted out of the casket for a last waltz around the living room.
Nan-Nan was left untouched in dignified repose. Just the same, things got exciting that night. Out in the kitchen, where the drinking took place, an old uncle suddenly dropped off his chair. Lucky for him, most of the town's volunteer ambulance corps was also in that kitchen. Whatever their own blood-alcohol levels, they rallied and got him to the local hospital, where the suspected stroke was diagnosed as only extreme inebriation.
The next morning, I was one of the badly hung-over pallbearers.
Some years later, practicing law with a firm in downtown Philly, I was assigned to handle the labor and employment issues of a posh cemetery on the Main Line. The bone yard had a unionized staff of some three-dozen gravediggers, crematory workers, shop clerks, and groundskeepers. In addition to negotiating the labor contracts with these guys, I dealt with such ghoulish matters as how to safely handle the pasteboard caskets that carried AIDS victims from hospice to crematorium. Sometimes these cheesy boxes leaked … yuck. The lads were understandably a little reluctant.
My mother's death stands as the most dramatic in my life. A tough old bird of German and Scotch-Irish lineage "mean and cheap" by her own admission she chose the Great Blizzard of March 1993 to leave this veil of tears. Yes, she left us on the Ides of March. It took two days to dig out and get to the funeral home. She probably wanted it that way.
Having pondered all these sundry exit strategies, I lean toward being cremated and having my ashes strewn. I hesitate only because of a story I heard during my Coast Guard days. The federal Clean Water Act had just been passed in 1972. Charlie Gulf obliged vets, who wanted their ashes scattered at sea. But when a cutter out of Seattle tried to provide the service to a recent widow, the harbor police pulled the Coasties over and told them the new law made the tradition illegal.
What to do? The skipper reportedly thought fast, conferred with his Chief Boatswain Mate, and had the urn taken below decks to the head. The poor vet was flushed into eternity. Can you really get through the Pearly Gates, if you journeyed there via a toilet?
This worries me, when I contemplate my own crossing.
Luckily, I suppose, I don't have very much experience with death as of yet. Thus far my encounters with death have been limited to a few elderly family members and some respectful, unremarkable funerals. All closed casket, all somber affairs. There were never any outbursts of grief, no one leapt into the graves a la Hamlet, and there was no final waltz around the coffin. The bodies were locked up in boxes, out of sight but not out of mind. Somehow, though, that only served to make funerals more mysterious, and therefore more sinister to me as a child. When I was younger, a funeral was an ominous affair, frightening in its sense of secrecy and sterility.
I'm not saying I'd necessarily prefer to see my deceased relatives dance around the living room with whiskey dripping from their lips. It just seems that perhaps there was some merit in old traditions, something humanizing that many funerals today lack. Death was closer, more in your face. Now it's comfortably outside of our collective field of vision, making it all the more terrifying.
But then there are my good friends the Fishers.
I am talking, of course, about the Fisher family Ruth, Nate, David, and Claire from the HBO series Six Feet Under. Because although many young people of my generation have barely experienced death in any personal capacity, we've certainly experienced it enough secondhand through television and movies. But while most of those experiences involve illogical terrorism schemes, giant explosions, and an ever-pervasive artificiality, Six Feet Under brings death, as realistically as any TV show possibly can, into the home.
Hailed by many as a groundbreaking series, Six Feet Under is about the Fishers and their family-owned funeral home business a business that happens to be physically connected to their own house. Corpses are constantly wheeled in and out of the foyer, the funerals are held in the living room, and down just one more flight of stairs the viewer inevitably finds a slab where the next body is being prepared for the hereafter. And yes, we see the preparation of many, many bodies in explicit, close-up detail.
This may not sound like everyone's cup of tea I certainly didn't think it was mine after watching the first episode. But most of us are fascinated with death, even if only out of morbid curiosity, and while Six Feet Under feeds into the curiosity, it never exploits it. Death is a fact of life in the Fisher household, but instead of dehumanizing death and making it more sterile, that fact gives death significance and a myriad of possible interpretations. One episode in particular comes to mind; an infant is brought into the funeral home after dying of SIDS. Rico, the funeral home's restorative artist, has to prepare the baby's body while at the same time his wife sits at home pregnant and nearly ready to deliver. His reaction helps the viewer to reflect on life and death in a completely unique, possibly even personal, way.
Unsurprisingly, though, the Fisher family members are more than a little complicated and melancholy, which is why I'm not recommending that anyone start their own funeral business in order to get over a fear of mortality. By the end of the series it's clear that working so closely with death has had profound consequences for each of the characters. To let death into your life so wholly can certainly be damaging.
On the other hand, in a world where death is so commonplace in entertainment, and yet kept at such a distance from reality, I think Six Feet Under is the perfect antidote for our generation. It helps to let death out of the box, even if just a little.