“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”
“Would you like to wash her?” the hospice nurse asks. Confused, I nod and fetch a basin and sandalwood soap, then fumble in the closet until I find an extra soft rag, even though I know this is absurd.
I return to the bed, scared for the first time of my mother’s body. First, because of what it is not; she is so clearly gone. Second, because of what it is: flesh like mine—but about to decompose. Taking a deep breath, I pull back the sheet, feeling as though she might pop back into her shell at any moment.
A tentative swipe. “Are we—um—do I need to really clean her, or is this more of a ritual?” There is none of the mess I was warned to anticipate. That is my mother for you, tidy to the end.
“More of a ritual,” the nurse assures me, and my gestures smooth. I wash my mother’s once athletic legs, her capable arms, her lovely face, free of pain at last. Death’s reality enters me, settling in a little deeper with each pass of the cloth.
Hindus bathe the bodies of their dead with milk, honey, and ghee, I read later, then rub in fragrant oils and cover the body with flowers. I wish I had rubbed in a dab of Nette’s beloved Hershey’s chocolate, sprayed her with Shalimar, slipped a gardenia into her hand. Washington U.’s anatomy students would have had such a lovely surprise.
• • •
Dying is something we all do. Saints, film stars, Olympic athletes, con artists. I feel calmer every time another cool friend pulls it off; if all these smart, funny people have managed to die, could it be so awful to share their fate? Yet much of what we call culture is created to deny death, or at least distract us from it. And when we are not avoiding the prospect altogether, we are lining up some version of immortality, be it fame or legacy or progeny or inspiration. If death shows up anyway, we move away from it as quickly as possible.
Taking a deep breath, I pull back the sheet, feeling as though she might pop back into her shell at any moment.
Logically (though who is logical at such times?), horror should not be wasted on death—which stops our fears and revulsions cold—but reserved for grief. Even orca whales feel that desolate ache. One mother carried her dead baby through the water for seventeen days. Elephants carry their dead calves. A chimpanzee mother will make loud alarm calls as she carries her dead baby in her arms, and the other chimps will sniff the body, make sounds of distress, and quietly withdraw. (We carry our dead, too, but they stay inside us.)
What other grieving animals may not grasp is the part that keeps us up nights looking for an escape hatch. They absorb death as something that sometimes happens. We know it always happens, eventually.
Worst of all—and I think other animals do grasp this, often better than we do—death is irreversible.
We like to sugarcoat that part, euphemizing death as “passing” or “departing.” Those verbs have softer syllables, less final implications. We ease ourselves into absence, enshrining bits of our loved one’s life, consulting them now and then, looking forward to reunion. When we are in the thick of early grief and a winged creature arrives—a hawk swooping down on the terrace or a butterfly insisting on our shoulder—we often greet it as a message. They are well! They are finding a way to be with us! The association is not as crazy as it seems. In ancient Greek, the word for “soul” also means butterfly—and who knows, maybe some winged creatures are souls, freed from gravity and soaring. The notion comforts us because it means our dead are, in a new way, alive.
Most of the world’s belief systems are organized to fight death’s finality. Hinduism reverses death again and again with reincarnation. Buddhism tells us there is neither birth nor death, only transformation. Christianity defines Christ’s sacrifice as the great reversal, canceling death altogether. People around the world bow down before their ancestors, honor their supposed demands, prepare their favorite foods. (Do the kids, oblivious to mortality, sneak a bite?)
Nearly every culture has conjured ghosts and learned to live with them. And we have come up with all sorts of halfway houses: limbo, purgatory, the bardo, the long journey (often across a river) to the next world. Surely all of that cannot be reduced to wishful thinking?
What other grieving animals may not grasp is the part that keeps us up nights looking for an escape hatch. They absorb death as something that sometimes happens. We know it always happens, eventually.
We will find out. Meanwhile, here on earth, physical death remains irreversible. This is the fulcrum of our grief: we will never hear our loved one’s voice again, never feel their hand stroke our cheek. Never again can we turn to them for comfort or—wonderful old-fashioned word—succor. Their absence has knocked us from our place in the universe.
• • •
When a Jesuit learned of my mother’s death, he wrote me, “May you have enough grief.” The words startled me. People usually worry when someone grieves too much, too loudly or too long. “I’m fine,” I insist, meaning I am coping, meaning everything will stay normal (even though the universe just cracked).
When did we become so awkward about grief?
The Victorians turned mourning into an art form, draping widows in weeping veils and solid black clothing for the first year and only gray or lavender for the next. Locks of the deceased’s hair were woven into jewelry. Clocks were stopped at the hour of death. Séances were held. Death was expected and even anticipated; women often made their own shrouds and packed them into their wedding trousseau.
Then came World War I, killing so many so fast that the rituals had to be abandoned. Both here and in Europe, people abbreviated public rituals and pulled their grief inside them. (Think COVID funerals.) By the sixties, anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer could see a huge shift in attitude. The new expectation was that “sensible, rational men and women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will and character, so that it need be given no public expression, and indulged, if at all, in private, as furtively as…masturbation.” Which, in 1965, suggests shame. Mourning was not proof of love but a secret weakness.
Now, we live in the strangest moment yet. The internet has made grief public again, but its rites are surreal. Instead of hugs and murmured words of sorrow, there are tweets of grief, like salutes to a passing motorcade, and active Facebook pages years after a young person’s suicide, the comments breezily maudlin. What makes this grief public? Only that our name is attached for an audience. No one need change their clothes or hang crepe on their front door or refrain from festivity. A like or a sadface is as communal as this “social” ritual gets, with its remote and asynchronous interaction. People defend this internet mourning as a new rite. At least, they say, there is some sort of common custom that reaches deeper than “thoughts and prayers.” But however heartfelt the mourning, it takes place in the most detached way possible.
With even more intense (but still silent) wails, we also grieve the death of celebrities whose lives got tangled up in ours, whether Princess Diana or Queen Elizabeth, Elvis Presley or David Bowie, Betty White or Robin Williams or Anthony Bourdain. And in the wake of those public outpourings come public scoldings, as soon as the pile of heart and teddy bear emojis grows so embarrassingly high that it threatens to topple.
Excesses of grief annoy us.
“Shouldn’t Batman be over it by now?” I ask my husband, triggering a lecture on the story arc of our most tormented superhero, still driven by the death of his parents. My question is proxy: I am worried about a friend who lost her partner a year ago. “Time to move on,” people nudge her. “You need to get over this.”
The Victorians turned mourning into an art form, draping widows in weeping veils and solid black clothing for the first year and only gray or lavender for the next. Locks of the deceased’s hair were woven into jewelry.
We do not ever “get over” a loss, let alone “get back to normal life.” The person we were is dead, too. I am no longer a daughter, in the lived sense. I can never again ask my mother’s advice, summon old laughter with a word or a look, celebrate seasons and holidays with private rituals we created together. I knew her, quite literally, my whole life. She was a living repository of my dreams and joys and mortifications, and she automatically wanted the best for me, thought the best of me, loved me without question through every fuck-up. Now I swing without that safety net.
I, I, I, I. If you have not figured this out by now, grief, which disguises itself as homage, is often selfish. Even the phrase “loved one” puts us, our love, first. We wail because we cannot have our way, cannot keep our people with us. Even the happy memories ambush us, scraping the hole a little bigger. In loving, we pried off a bit of ourselves and gave it gladly, swapping it for a bit of them—and now there is a hole in the world and a hole in us, and somehow we have to keep going.
• • •
Back in 1917, Freud sliced grief in half: either you were in a healthy state of mourning or a pathological state of melancholia. Now psychiatry is following his lead: a new diagnosis, prolonged grief disorder, was just added to the Diagnostic Standards Model. Healthy grief is supposed to “resolve” within a year (many psychiatrists would cap it at six months, but a year struck the committee as safer). “Complicated” is the label for grief that takes over one’s life and refuses to leave. “He was never the same after she died,” we say, or, “His death broke her.”
The bright side? Treatment can now be reimbursed. The dark side? They are pathologizing love.
How dare anyone decide how long someone’s grief should take to run its course? Even the revered Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh grieved his mother’s death for more than a year, pronouncing it the greatest misfortune of his life. Yet a mother’s natural, old-age death creeps toward you, visible at all times. Hypnotized by its slow approach, you square off and try to brace. Other deaths, though. Other deaths step around the corner and punch the breath from your chest. Sometimes the grief is clean, shearing you like an ice-cold, salty wind at the ocean’s edge. Sometimes grief twists your guts with all the words you left unsaid, all the questions still unanswered. Either way, and always, there is regret. Also an unnamable sadness, because fresh grief gathers up all your other griefs and knots them together.
The internet has made grief public again, but its rites are surreal. Instead of hugs and murmured words of sorrow, there are tweets of grief, like salutes to a passing motorcade, and active Facebook pages years after a young person’s suicide, the comments breezily maudlin.
For years, clinicians tried to reduce enduring, intrusive grief (the “complicated” sort) to depression, anxiety, or PTSD. It will not reduce. Instead, weirdly, brain scans show activity in the region lit up by addiction. The brain fastens onto grief and, without our permission, comes to depend upon it. Maybe because it is all that is left of the love? The condition is so physiological that researchers are running trials with Naltrexone to see if it might ease our cravings for the dead. I picture someone white-knuckled, fighting to drag their loved one back into this world and being tugged toward theirs instead. Soften that death grip, and maybe they can return to their own life.
First, though, they have to admit irreversibility. And there are some griefs that fight back. If I lost a child? I would leave his bedroom untouched, ostensibly a shrine but ready at a moment’s notice. I would swing from one psychic to the next, hungry for word.
What else cannot be borne? Death we cannot bury. Bodies hidden by a murderer; tortured in secret by authorities; buried in mass graves, as the Russians have done to the Ukrainians to hide their war crimes. It must be nearly impossible to accept irreversibility without a body. The grief would stay raw, stained by cruel hope—maybe they got away and they are hiding somewhere and cannot get word to us? We are physical beings, and we need to lay the body to rest, a lovely phrase that suggests a spirit tormented by the separation. The spirit, though, is ours. Until they are in our arms again, we cannot rest.
My mother’s death happened in our home, at her life’s end. After loving her forever, the manageability of my sorrow feels almost disloyal. But because she was so present for so long, and was then so ready to die, she left me nothing to wrestle with. I feel only a soft missing that, cut off from any wish to bring her back (how could I, against her will?) rides my shoulder like that butterfly.
• • •
Everyone grieves differently. In Indonesia, the Toraja people keep their dead in the home for months or even years, chatting with them, changing their clothes at regular intervals. The ancient Andeans did not relegate their dead to distant, shaded cemeteries but kept them close, where their presence could be felt. Many cultures ease the dead from their lives with such ritualized slowness that a healthy impatience creeps into the mourning.
Watching the cool, restrained precision of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral ceremonies, a Ghanian remarks, “They march, we dance.” Grief can be murmured or wailed to the skies—either way, we need ritual to move it outside of us. A ritual is enacted deliberately, without hurry, and with care. It can order our wild emotions by expressing them in a controlled and formal way. This vents impulses that might otherwise bubble over, which is how we find ourselves hurling the good china or screaming at our tactless uncle while our partner looks around wildly for somebody who might have Xanax in their purse.
Many cultures ease the dead from their lives with such ritualized slowness that a tinge of healthy impatience creeps into the mourning.
Jews sit shiva, drawing people into the home and setting aside routine to keep watch over the body, focusing for seven days on nothing but the loss. Christians tell each other it makes more sense to rejoice, but they say this through tears, at weirdly overdecorated parlors everyone is secretly dying to escape. “You people do death badly,” a Jewish psychologist once teased. Remembering how my mother’s sisters dragged her toward their father’s open coffin and how she sobbed and shook afterward, I had to agree.
Still, any ritual seems better than a shrug of nothing. Without formal religion, there is only a secular blur. We lose time-honored ways to mark loss and change.
At least, I thought we did. But people create rituals instinctively, and these private, intimate, often casual rituals are every bit as effective. Washing your car the way your husband would have, tracking his favorite sports team—all those tiny acts of commemoration that symbolize, and honor, our connection to the person we have lost. Lighting a candle at the first Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas without my mom was a way to make her present, or at least demonstrate her presence in my heart and mind. It stopped that stricken pang of survivor’s guilt—how can we celebrate this without her?
Though ritual can seem superstitious, twee, or pompous, we need it. Those symbolic acts ground us, soften our fears, channel our grief, remind us of meaning and the endurance of memory. We have no idea where our dead have gone, but we know what we remember.
• • •
Once, death masks were made regularly, the goo pressed close to eyes and lips until it hardened into a likeness that could summon the dead person’s spirit. Or, in more practical times, guide a formal portrait or help identify a body. Above all, the mask would not decay; it could be kept close for the rest of your life. An irreversible consolation.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, photography came into being as another token of permanence. With cholera killing millions, the new art was pressed into service. Photographers made postmortem images that showed the dead peacefully asleep, their stiffening limbs bent into a relaxed pose, their waxy pallor tinted back to health. Often the mourners were in the photo too, with parents cradling dead children or with wives, veiled in black, bent close to their dead husbands.
After some years of this, White middle-class women seized the practice as avidly as they would later seize scrapbooking. Now the photographs were of them alone, carefully gowned in black crepe, striking a pose of inconsolable grace, sometimes holding up a photo of their loved one.
A company in Paris takes the clothing of someone who has died and synthesizes their evocative, remembered scent.
Today, there is another art of permanence: the tattoo. In Hawaii, death tattoos are ritual, and the artists listen like ministers to the stories of the bereaved, then offer a ritual that contains their loss. Sometimes literally. Some tattoo artists take a cremated person’s ashes (could there be a worse portmanteau than “cremains,” which sounds like powdered coffee creamer?) and mix them into their ink, so the tattoo incorporates the person’s body.
AI wants to do even better, capturing someone’s voice, story, and writings, then building them into a robot that can respond to new information as, say, your mom would have. (I can just hear mine: “You spent how much on this?”
Rock stars are now permanent, too, their holographic avatars doing live concerts in perpetuum. A company in Paris takes the clothing of someone who has died and synthesizes their evocative, remembered scent.
Oddly, the harder we cling to our dead, the more lightly we mourn them. Years of solemn religious rites, finishing at a gravesite (why is it always raining?), have pushed us in the opposite direction, toward a secular, irreverent gaiety. Wakes are held in stage-set kitchens; an ardent fan gets buried in an Indy 500 coffin. Personalization takes the place of old-time religion. And what does that say about us? That we have given up on anything bigger than we are?
Even the typical wake is often a cocktail party with photo boards, and people show up at funerals in hot-pink sweatshirts. Is it healthier to insist on making grief upbeat, celebrating the life instead of mourning its loss? It certainly meshes better with Christian rejoicing. But joy is not what the bereaved feel. And hot pink conveys no shared sorrow.
Americans were transfixed by Operation LONDON BRIDGE, the longstanding plan for Queen Elizabeth’s death that began with a “call cascade,” scripted the notifications, precision-timed the lowering of flags to half-mast.
“We celebrate the ordinariness of life now, barely before it’s over,” grumbles one of Howard Jacobson’s ninety something characters in Live a Little. “Every occasion like every other. No black suits. No ties. Death too is an occasion to wear your trainers.”
Is all this insistence on ordinariness one more way to forget that something irreversible has happened? Americans were transfixed by Operation LONDON BRIDGE, the longstanding plan for Queen Elizabeth’s death that began with a “call cascade,” scripted the notifications, precision-timed the lowering of flags to half-mast. It was deeply satisfying to see those soldiers march in perfect formation, those mourners walking a preordained path. There was an itinerary, a program everyone could follow.
Elizabeth’s was death writ large; there was no blunting the loss or her irreplaceability. Instead, it did exactly what our small services and private rituals aim to do: brought order to the chaos of loss, shock, and inescapable change.
• • •
The temperature has soared past 100, and still, I am too cheap to pay to park. Hiking up a long block, my black linen dress damp and wrinkled, I see a guy in a white coat rise from a bench.
“Are you going to the reverence ceremony?” my young Charron asks. He has been posted near the Washington University School of Medicine Metro stop to give directions. The thoughtfulness stuns me. I figured this ceremony will be me and three med students, because who is going to come out in this heat for a sterile, secular thank you?
The auditorium is full. Even the med school administrators are surprised by the turnout. I find one of the last remaining empty seats and wait for my mother’s only funeral. She was indifferent to ceremony and abhorred fuss, but surely she will not mind her name being one of four hundred thanked for donating their bodies to science?
Each of us is handed a little plastic LED candle we will flick on when our loved one’s name is read. I, who love ceremony, set mine carefully in my lap. A string trio plays; that, at least, my mother would have loved. A med student tells us that anatomy is a rite of passage for them, too, a realization that “this is really happening.” Every body is different, with quirks that do not match the textbooks. She speaks of “unlocking the mysteries that lie beneath the skin.”
I think about the sacrifice these four hundred people made—no gleaming coffin, no weepy wake and funeral, just a quiet arrival in a lab. This is my body.
A young man sings “What a Wonderful World,” giving me a chance to think about babies and dogs and Snickers bars and tennis and Johnny Mathis and dancing and sunbathing and a sparkling clean house and NCIS, all my mother’s joys. Then students carry huge neoclassical urns to the stage: four hundred flowers, their colors symbolizing love, joy, gratitude, remembrance.
Each of the four hundred names is read, and tiny sparks of light slowly fill the auditorium. The student who is reading has a lovely, soft voice, and she takes her time. It would be so tempting to speed up, to rattle off all these vacated identities so we can get to the dessert reception, but she lets each name fill the air and linger.
This is as fine a funeral as any in a church, I decide. Reverence need not be thumbtacked to a deity.
• • •
Think about death long enough, and what felt like calm acceptance will slip a cog and ratchet into a clenched hysteria: I will never see my mother again.
Surely this is the panic that informs any doctrine about the resurrection of the body? How often our philosophical solutions are rigged toward the comfort of the familiar. We need to see and touch and kiss those we love, feel the heat of their bodies next to ours, hear the reassurance of their breath. To heal the pain of separation, the body has to live again!
Also, we are not quite sure how we would live on without one.
And so we drain our loved ones’ blood and gurgle chemicals into the hollowed carapace, a practice meant to be a temporary solution when rich families wanted to bring their dead boys home from the Civil War. Terrified of death’s rot, Americans kept the custom, eventually replacing the arsenic and mercury mixture with formaldehyde, methanol, maybe some benzene turpentine, alcohol, creosote…all to keep bacteria from snacking. (If preservation until burial were the only goal, we could just use dry ice.)
Next, rather than wrap bodies in a linen winding sheet, we dress them in their Sunday best, cut away at the back and pinned and tucked. Then we paint their faces, suture their mouths shut, and fix their hair, all so mourners can take a shaky peek and murmur how lifelike they look—even though the result is no more that person than a papery crumple of shed skin is a snake.
… we drain our loved ones’ blood and gurgle chemicals into the hollowed carapace, a practice meant to be a temporary solution when rich families wanted to bring their dead boys home from the Civil War.
This simulacrum is sealed into a heavy metal coffin and placed into a heavy metal vault, said to have a psychological value because those hundreds of pounds of copper, bronze, or steel will keep all the elements out. So our dead will not get rained on? So they can rise as intact zombies?
Truth is, we cannot bear to think that our loved one might seep into the soil, swirl into the molecules that can host new life. We forget (on purpose) that the word “human” is rooted in “humus”: we come from, and return to, the earth. Natural burials make a lot of people nervous. How can we let the body turn to mush? We will need it!
Irreversibility, we have persuaded ourselves, is negotiable.
• • •
What do we owe our dead? First, a rethink.
The Second Book of the Tao reminds us that “death turns into beauty, as beauty turns back into decay.” Somehow our culture missed that. We revel in the energy of youth and shudder at age’s ravages. “The Americans have struck the word death out of their vocabulary—they speak only of the ‘dear departed,’” noted Simone de Beauvoir with more than a hint of condescension. Our language is empty: people “pass,” they “go to a better place,” and we say reflexively, “Sorry for your loss.” Obsessive bursts of genealogy are as close as we come to acknowledging the importance of our dead. Otherwise, we avert our gaze and focus instead on our kids, especially at funerals, where everyone is glad for the distraction of an errant toddler.
Second, we owe our dead a decent burial. Yet we cannot seem to figure out what to do with their bodies.
The ancients would have laid them on a stone table and let the vultures descend, strip the bones clean, and poke about in the cavities, their tiny heads bald by design so there are no feathers to gunk up with bacteria.
We lay our dead naked on a steel table, inject the embalming fluid, seal them up box-inside-box, bury them in ever-scarcer land, and spend a fortune mowing its surface.
Or we cremate, which just decades ago was considered the devil’s work. I remember my Catholic mother reluctantly explaining that my non-Catholic father was, er, in an urn. Today, lower cost and space-saving simplicity have made cremation far more popular. At least it does not chew up the planet’s forests and fill the soil with chemicals and heavy metals. But just as I decide to join my father, I learn that cremation is not so green itself. It takes an awful lot of energy (two full SUV tanks per person) to generate enough hellish heat to burn a body. And carcinogens float into the air as you burn.
Obsessive bursts of genealogy are as close as we come to acknowledging the importance of our dead. Otherwise, we avert our gaze and focus instead on our kids, especially at funerals, where everyone is glad for the distraction of an errant toddler.
Aquamation still sounds promising. The body is dissolved in water that is then sent to a wastewater recovery facility. Okay, ick, but the process uses 90 percent less energy than cremation. Composting, now legal in four states, appeals even more. I always feel virtuous dumping slimy lettuce, browned apple cores and eggshells into our compost bin. It might take more than a month to compost me—the emptied flesh and bone surrounded by alfalfa, straw, and sawdust—but it will use only one-eighth of the energy required for cremation. And I will yield about four wheelbarrows of good, rich earth.
We really are made of earth.
People hold their breath passing a cemetery, assuming it to be haunted. Devoted mourners do haunt them, unable to tear themselves away from their dead. Luckily, those folks are gone by dark, when teenagers (who believe themselves immortal) sneak in to have sex. A lot happens, when you think about it, in these flat, quiet, stone-rowed parks. Vandals desecrate the graves or leave the graffiti of hate. Visitors weep, pray, curse, spit, lay flowers, pour whiskey, kneel to beg forgiveness.
If I were designing a cemetery, I would insist on green burials, the bodies clothed in biodegradable garments and not our godawful indestructible polyester, the coffins plain thin wood. I would allow people’s animals to be buried with them. Time was, even a man’s horses were buried with him. But with the establishment of Christianity, it was said that only humans had souls, and our loyal and beloved animals, whose deaths would never be reversed, had no place by our side.
A dubious way to show off a soul.
My ecocemetery would welcome picnickers, add hammocks for (temporary) rest, let a brook run through, and arc a tree swing over the water so visitors could soar. Defying gravity. Defying death, for the moment.
Joy should always be allowed to mingle with sorrow. As long as it is not wearing hot pink.
• • •
We also owe it to our dead to honor their memory with our own. As long as someone remains alive who remembers, a dead person is not gone. We keep them in mind. A thin consolation. But it is, after all, how love works, engraving one life inside another.
In H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald writes that “the archaeology of grief is not ordered. It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simple memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.” This is true, but there is more than random surprise, more than a scatter of video-clip memories. Love someone long enough, and they live inside your head. No wonder AI thinks it can replicate our dead; we already do. We memorize their quirks and internalize their wisdom so durably, we can apply it to entirely new situations.
Time was, even a man’s horses were buried with him. But with the establishment of Christianity, it was said that only humans had souls, and our loyal and beloved animals, whose deaths would never be reversed, had no place by our side.
That is what they owe us. The dead must help the living face what lies ahead.
And to let them help us, we have to stop being afraid of them.
Clarice Lispector writes of “being so very tired that only the sleep of death will do…. The person dying sometimes really needs to die. Could it be that dying is the last earthly pleasure?” My grandpa used to mutter that it was harder getting out of this world than getting into it. My stepdad said on his last birthday that he was more than ready to go. When a friend asked my mom how she was, she drew a slender finger across her throat and said, “Marvelous, darling.” She wanted to die and made no bones about it, scolding us, when we got excited by a good oxygen saturation reading or burst of appetite, that we were praying for the wrong thing. “She is dying,” her doctor told me gently, “and she wants to die.”
I had a hard time joining her in that desire, but now I think it the best possible way to die. No resisting, no panicked struggle. My grandmother, by contrast, was so sharp-tongued, she was terrified to die. On earth, she had regularly rigged things to her advantage; now she just might burn.
Little reveals us as surely as the way we imagine death. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the character Death is not a grim reaper, grinning at the ruthless power of his scythe. Death is beautiful, gentle, sensitive, warm, and compassionate. When do we ever think of death as a loving friend? Only when we are trapped, very old, or utterly miserable. The rest of the time, we are kept at arm’s length from death, and we have come to prefer it that way. We hand over our dying to the professionals, and the death happens under fluorescent lights, sanitized, in a cranked bed. Then the next set of professionals swoops in and carries away our dead on a covered stretcher. We see more death online than in our own families.
“If you’re getting little snippets of death in a horror movie or on the news…. it’s going to train you to be in this cycle of fear,” mortician and writer Caitlin Doughty points out. “They are little fear bombs that go off in your mind and reinforce a pattern of terror.”
Could we let the absence of all those who have gone before us calm us? Could they help us accept irreversibility, even? It ought to be scarier to imagine oneself lingering, trapped between worlds, lifting the occasional Ouija board because we are bored beyond measure. But permanence—is lonely. In a cruel little sitcom bit, a friend who is dogsitting solemnly intones, as the door shuts on the dog’s people, “They’re never coming back.” For a dog, you cannot devise a more devastating message.
For us, either.
Yet in other contexts, “never” can be a relief. Irreversibility can be a joy. Say you work for years to finish the Boston marathon or get a piece published in The New Yorker, and you finally succeed. “No one can ever take that away from me,” you crow, rolling the fizzy sweetness on your tongue. Or say you marry, and you both believe marriage is forever. There will be no agonizing over possibilities, no chance of abandonment, no temptation to sample a different fate. Even the irreversibility of an illness or disability lends a certain comfort. You can skip the agony of trying, the disappointment of wacky miracle cures. All you need do is accept.
In a cruel little sitcom bit, a friend who is dogsitting solemnly intones, as the door shuts on the dog’s people, “They’re never coming back.” For a dog, you cannot devise a more devastating message. For us, either.
If we truly accepted death as irreversible, would we stop measuring and judging one another’s grief?
If we made ourselves more comfortable with this irreversibility, could we reimagine death itself?
We are so very fond of our egos, we cannot grasp the chance that dissolution could be better. And yet I think of meditation, orgasm, mountain-climbing, floating, even just lying sleepily in bed, holding my husband’s hand until I lose the boundary and cannot tell where my hand leaves off and his begins. I do not miss my self at those times. I am just glad it existed long enough to get me to that state.
“It could be,” writes Stephen Mitchell, “(if there were such a thing as separate beings) that the dead look upon our attachment to life like fond grandparents watching a teenager’s first tumultuous love affair. It could be, in fact, that the dead are nothing but their own delight.”
If we truly accepted death as irreversible, would we stop measuring and judging one another’s grief? If we made ourselves more comfortable with this irreversibility, could we reimagine death itself?
This flashes me to Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, in which he writes of wearing “bright and clanging colors” as “some bit of healing for my old man,” who had been reared with a sober, rigid, navy and gray masculinity. Gay craves color, pattern, flowers: “a delight that can heal our loved ones, even the dead ones.”
I struggle with that line, much as I love it. Heal them, or heal us from their pain? Either way, a relief. Even if my mother’s soul is still tethered to the identity she acquired here, she must be so happy now, free of the body’s migraines and arthritis and nerves and fear. Lighthearted. Her face looked—people always say “peaceful,” which is reassuring on many levels, but also, she looked younger. The worry lines were gone, and the tightening of pain around her lips. Our neuroses dissolve with the body.
No longer scared to die, the dead are free.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.