A quest to make sense of it all. Or a sense to make a quest of it all.

Monday, May 21, 2012

I'll fly away.

On a break this morning, I read a little article. One of those one-page deals with bulleted, interesting information that you'll likely forget once you're done waiting on your oil change (because that's when those articles are the best). This one was called "13 Things the Funeral Director Won't Tell You". Pretty interesting, and good knowledge to have on standby. Burial/cremation is necessary, after all. Most of us, at some point, will have to be responsible for arranging a funeral. Looking at these things obectively isn't too bothersome; it's, as said, necessary. Death is a part of life. It's natural. Done deal. It's either a blackout, or only the beginning. Circle of life. Cue Elton John. (What's unnatural is how we've come to deal with it, or not deal with it, in our overly sanitized, therapy-pushing culture.) It isn't awful that an entire industry exists to sort out the unpleasant task of body disposal. What's gut-punchingly nauseating is that an entire industry thrives on milking the bereft. People who are still in the weird, grief-shock haze of losing a parent, sibling, child, spouse, friend, or good lawyer can barely function well enough to put together an outfit. Phrases like, "You want what's best for your mother, and this is your last chance" apply a cattle prod to the part of the brain where guilt is stored and dispensed.

  (My own mother has been very clear that she sniffs at the idea of a fancy casket, and since it's illegal to just toss someone in a river, a plain pine box will do. I echo these sentiments. My parents, my cousins, Brandon, Brett, and now the internet all know: I couldn't care less what happens to my carcass. The only thing you should feel guilty about is if you spend a lot on its planting, because that's straight-up dumb. My only request is that you do it on the cheap and without embalming, not because of any spiritual reason, but because decomposition is inevitable and it's retarded to pump bodies full of chemicals that will eventually leach into the earth, poisoning innocent rabbits or something.)

A coworker noticed what I was reading and recoiled, horrified. "Why are you reading that??" she wanted to know. I didn't see what the big deal was. I told her it was interesting, and read aloud a couple of the items. She literally clapped her hands over her ears and said, "Oh my God, that's morbid! Why would anyone read about death? Read about happy things!". She then brought out a catalog featuring nothing but baskets, and she and two other coworkers happily fell upon it. Baskets.

The thing is, I wasn't even reading about death. Not death itself, as a concept to ponder, or an individual's death, or physiological markers of impending death. The article was about what the living party does with the physical remains, and it was mostly from a financial perspective. You'd be hard pressed to get farther removed from the emotional aspect of death. It had nothing to do with, you know, into-the-light, salvation or damnation, Sylvia Browne specials, Death. I don't think it was morbid at all. It's not like I was talking about necrophilia.

Her reaction got me thinking about how our society in general deals with death, and my thoughts got so jumbled up that I couldn't come to any profound conclusions (SHOCKER). On one hand, there's a desensitization toward the death of our own kind. It's sad when a lunatic kills a woman, but it's not front-page worthy. Now let that lunatic set a dog on fire, and that's the headliner on CNN.com for half a day. People are infuriated. They want answers. A couple more crack whores in a dumpster, or even a couple more housewives in a dumpster, is something to tsk-tsk about and turn the page, those lost lives already completely forgotten by the time you flip to the feature on Memorial Day recipes. Whatever that desensititivity is, it doesn't seem like it's a good thing. I dunno. Maybe we get cold to those things because there's so much of it, it would overload us to think about it all and we'd never think about anything else. Would that be such a bad thing? If we made it matter to ourselves, maybe we'd work a lot harder to stop some of that ugliness from happening.

On the flip side is the terrified, willfully ignorant, don't-wanna-hear-about-it attitude I encountered this morning. We can watch CSI marathons and make sure Saw grosses over $100 million, and withstand increasingly preachy zombie movies, but OMG don't talk about death! We're so removed from it on a personal level that it seems unnatural. I think a lot of this is because so few people die at home anymore. It's all in hospitals and nursing homes. Old people, and people who have very rural backgrounds, who remember family members dying at home (because that's just how it happened) talk about a quietus, or a moment when you feel the spirit leave a person's body, sort of a reverse quickening. My mother has told me about her grandpa dying when she was 16. The family was gathered in that tiny house in White Holler, waiting. She says when Erskine let out his last breath, a big wind built in the treetops and rushed down into the holler, making quite a racket and unnerving the dogs, who started yelping and trying to get inside. Then it was gone, all quiet. She maintains that his soul was being taken to Heaven.

We live in an increasingly atheistic culture that seeks to ridicule anyone who believes there may be something worthwhile after death. The thought of not having to answer to a higher authority is pretty attractive, but I guess the thought of becoming instantly meaningless at your last breath isn't too comfortable, either. I dunno. I know that my friends who have strong faith aren't too weirded out by death, and the ones who claim we just blip out seem to anxiously avoid the topic altogether. I wouldn't be too keen on talking about the moment where where this bag of bones and happiness, memories, battle scars, strengths, broken pieces, mended pieces, revelations, gained wisdom, good jokes, loving sex, great meals, milestones, traumas, tragedies, triumphs, sacraments, and perfect kisses all suddenly implode into...ashes. All the things that do make us so beautifully human and our lives so worthwhile, do those things not really count? I call bull. They count, and I believe there's so much more afterward. Good stuff. Which is maybe why it doesn't bother me to examine death, or birth, in a matter-of-fact way. That's what we do. We make babies and die, and I think we lose some vital pieces of human experience when we insist on doing both of those things in hospitals. It's no more morbid to know I can bury my parents for free at Corinth National Cemetary (thanks to Veterans Affairs), than it would have been to know I'd bury them in the family plot 75 years ago. It's just bodies, you know? The important stuff doesn't get buried with them. It gets taken to Heaven on the wind.

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