Those are people who died…died. They were all my friends, and they died.
—People Who Died, The Jim Carroll Band
This is about death. Not mine, of course, since I’m not dead or in imminent danger of dying (as far as I know). At this point, you probably have stopped reading. Who wants to read about something so depressing? A lot of people, really, because we all think about it, we deal with it and–eventually–experience it.
Why I am thinking about it? Not sure. An uncle of mine recently died, and it got me thinking about it. He died in May, which is also the month that both my parents died. That’s apropos of nothing, other than it happened. My middle son was also born in May. A bunch of other people were, too.
Could be because I’m an American, and Americans love death. Okay, that may be an overstatement. I don’t suppose we LOVE it. But it damn sure amuses us. Kurt Vonnegut observed that if you die on TV, “you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.”
We like death in our movies and video games. Why do you think there’s a Saw V, for God’s sake? We have the death penalty, which seems to otherwise be the exclusive province of countries we consider evil. Speaking of which, we aren’t even averse to war anymore. We want peace and will turn the planet into a graveyard to achieve it.
Some death is noble. Some not. Die in a war, and every future generation of your family will know your name. Get stabbed by a hooker, and you’ll be pruned right out of the family tree. I had an ancestor die of “swollen testicles.” That’s not a disease, but syphilis is. Don’t know his name, but I know uncle Ollie died on the USS Houston.
We’re also the World’s leader in producing serial killers. We don’t get enough death through disease, war, executions and accidents. We kill for sport, too. No wonder I think about death.
Once you reach a certain age, you’ve seen a lot of people die–grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, aunts, uncles, co-workers–you name it. In my life, I’ve lost both parents, a brother, two aunts, five uncles and a close friend. That doesn’t even include distant relatives, co-workers and acquaintances. You live long enough, and you’ll get your fair share of it, too. Don’t live long enough, and you’ll just be dead.
Even if you haven’t personally experienced it, you can live–or die–vicariously by picking up the newspaper or surfing the internet. Death is a common topic. We run obituaries, some brief and to the point. “Joe Smith died yesterday. His funeral is today.” Some are long tributes to the deceased, documenting their every accomplishment, great or small. We have an unquenchable thirst for news of murders and accidents, the more hideous the better. Death is everywhere, I suppose.
I think I’ve learned a few things about death, although what I’ve learned may apply only to me. Indulge me.
Death may the greatest of all human blessings
I don’t know much about Socrates, other than he was supposed to be smart. I went to law school where they use the “Socratic Method” of teaching. So, I can also assume that he was a bit of a pain in the ass. I hope he had better material than this quote to comfort the grieving.
Most people will say that they don’t know what to say to a grieving person. Welcome to the club, friends. Almost NO ONE knows what to say. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know this, because folks have said these things to you. Here are some things which don’t help.
“I know how you feel”: No, you don’t. You don’t know how I feel about anything, really. So, how could you know how I feel about this? If you knew how I felt, you wouldn’t have said that.
“He’s gone to a better place.”: Really? Exactly how do you know? I wasn’t even thinking about THAT. If you’ve been dead, I’ll listen. I mean REALLY dead, not just flat-lined for a couple of minutes. Dead, as in taken to the funeral home, embalmed and buried dead. If you’ve done that, you might have some helpful insight. Otherwise, no one knows where anyone goes when they die. Plus, even if you THINK you know, maybe my relatives all go straight to Hell. Let’s just not talk about it.
“Life is for the living“: My dad used to say this a lot. Honestly, I don’t know what it means. Of course, life is for the living. Dead people don’t do a whole helluva a lot, being dead and all. I think it’s supposed to mean, “Okay. Show’s over. Move on.” Not helpful.
“Death is just part of life.” This and other philosophical meanderings about the bigger picture mean nothing. Yes, I agree. It’s part of life. The part that sucks. Thank you.
“You’ll always have your memories”: I had those before he/she died. It’s not like I just got them. I’m not grieving because I can’t remember things. That would be a completely different problem. In fact, if I DIDN’T have those memories, this wouldn’t be so tough.
So, what should you say? “I’m sorry” is good. Simple, to the point. No way to be offended by that one. “What can I do?” That’s sort of useless, since you can’t do anything, but it’s a nice thing to say. Honestly, there’s not much more to say. And it’s better than saying nothing.
I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
–Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
I can’t talk about death without talking about grief. Real grief drains your soul. It takes your life and flattens it. Nothing looks or sounds right. Food doesn’t taste good. Time warps and you lose track of hours, even days. It’s different for everyone.
Most people know about the Kubler-Ross seven stages of dying: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These were observed in dying patients and have subject to debate over the years. Some extrapolate these stages to the grieving process. I’m not one of those people.
I suppose people can go through some or all of those stages, but some people are more resilient than others. Myself, numbness has been an immediate reaction followed by sadness. I agree with C.S. Lewis who observed that grief was much like fear. I want to run from it, but there’s really nowhere to run because it hangs with me.
I don’t know that I have become depressed over grief, as much as I’ve dealt with a heavy sadness. It’s like wearing clothes that are just too heavy. It wears me out by the end of the day.
I can say that I’ve been angry more than once over death. A close friend died in the prime of her life, suddenly and without warning. This seemed unfair–and it still does. I raged against it, but it didn’t change. I guess I’ve come to believe that death is actually very fair. It comes for all of us.
Eventually, though, I do agree that acceptance settles down on me. I’ve grieved both poorly and well. I’ve held on far too long to some of it. Thankfully, it loosens its grip over time.
That’s about me. What about you? I don’t know how to tell people to grieve. If you’re upset and crying and raging, that’s okay by me. Hell, you’re supposed to be upset. That’s what we do. Be upset about it.
What I don’t have is any good advice for how YOU should grieve. It’s tough, and it’s miserable. Some folks benefit from counseling. Others just tough it out. Some never get past it, and that’s the worst.
You should always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise, they won’t come to yours.
We have to talk about funerals, those odd ceremonies where we give our loved ones a send off (although they’re really already gone, of course). I’ve been to a lot of funerals. Some have been quite good. Others have been lacking or had downright odd happenings:
- A lady who was one of the finest people I’ve known had the strangest funeral. After the obligatory bible readings and songs, it morphed into Open Mic Night. Anyone who wanted to say something could take the stage. One guy–possibly under the influence of hallucinogens–said death was like walking through a “water wall just like in the movies.” What movies had he been watching? One man was so overcome by emotion that most of his comments were confined to odd barking noises as he choked back tears. One eulogized by telling HIS life story. Others just babbled. Three hours later, it was over. As one person said: “When I die, I hope people have good things like that to say about me and that they keep it to themselves.”
- I had a friend in high school who died in a car wreck. His funeral was at a Pentecostal or Holiness Church (one of those fiery denominations). The preacher observed: “Every Sunday we heard the putt-putt-putt of his car’s engine as he pulled into our parking lot…THE SAME CAR THAT TOOK HIM TO HIS DEATH!!!!” There was much weeping and wailing after that zinger.
- Saw a man come out of the closet during a eulogy. There’s really not much more to say about that, other than that it was peculiar timing.
By the same token, I’ve been to some excellent funerals, ones where you leave feeling better about the situation:
- Once, I attended a memorial service for a baby. It was like taking a beating to show up. Beyond sad. The minister, however, was outstanding. The gist of his sermon was: “We don’t know why this happened. I don’t have an explanation. It really is bad, but we will all go on.” That may not sound very inspiring, but it was much better than a bunch of meaningless platitudes. It was honest and all that could be said.
- A few years ago, a friend’s mother died. She was in her 90’s, and her death was no shock to anyone. Her minister simply told stories about her. Although I never met her, I came away feeling like I knew her. Folks laughed at the stories, and everyone seemed to be uplifted by it.
- Another friend’s mother died, and my friend was given the tough task of her eulogy. He hit it out of the park. It wasn’t maudlin or sad. He just told what his mother was like and what she meant to him. Good stuff.
- My dad was a retired Air Force officer and had a military funeral. A bagpipe played Amazing Grace and a bugler played Taps at the end. Just as the bugler finished the last note, jets screamed by overhead. He had an honor guard from Wright Patterson Air Force Base. I still get chills thinking about it. He would have loved it!
What have I learned from this? First, a funeral should be respectful but short. Second, it’s okay if it’s not a sentimental tear-jerker. Third, simple is good. A prayer, a song or two, a nice eulogy. Thank you and drive safely.
What might wonder about MY funeral (or even look forward to it). I don’t care. I’ll be dead. Whatever comforts those left behind is fine with me. Now, I’d like to be cremated if for no other reason that to prevent people from gawking at my body. “Oh, he looks so good.” That should always be qualified by “…considering that he’s dead.” If I am buried, I don’t care if my casket has an extra firm mattress or silk lining. Remember–dead men don’t care. Burn me. Put me in an urn or scatter my ashes somewhere. Actually, they’ll be someone’s else’s ashes at that point. They can do whatever they want with them.
Please don’t bury me down in that cold, cold ground.
—Please Don’t Bury Me, John Prine
Speaking of funerals, I love cemeteries. I’m not sure why, but they fascinate me. Ornate monuments built-in memory of the dead. My own parents have a fabulous black marker. So does my brother. There are religious markers, plain ones, domes, obelisks, tiny stones, benches, huge vases, above ground tombs–you name it. This doesn’t even include niches, columbaria, scattering gardens and mausoleums.
We visit them. We talk to the dead people. We bring them flowers. Hell, we’re nicer to them dead than we were when they were alive! Why? Again, I have no answers. Personally, I don’t get a connection to my dead loved ones at the cemetery. I always think it’s just weird to see my parents’ and brother’s names on tombstones. Other people get a lot out of it, though. That’s fine with me.
One reason I don’t want to be planted that way is that I don’t want anyone thinking they’re obligated to “visit” me. My parents are buried three hours from my home. Honestly, I don’t go visit their graves. Oh, if I’m in the area, I check on their graves, mostly to be sure no one has kicked over their headstone. (I was assured that it is sufficiently anchored to prevent any such vandalism).
Well, again I’ve babbled on about a topic on which I have no expertise. If you take this as advice, be warned: It could be very harmful. Of course, as you’ve often heard, we’re all dying. Maybe so, but as Josey Wales (he killed a LOT of people) said: “Dying ain’t much of a living, boy.”
Thanks John, I sincerely (too serious?) enjoy your sharing your thoughts. Kinda figured you for a Vonnegut fan, are you?
Of course. He was brilliant. Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night are at the top of my reading list.