by Ed Searl
A few months ago, in sun-drenched, seemingly timeless July, my eighty-eight year old mother-in-law, Norma, entertained her long-time friend, Marvin, also an octogenarian and a recent widower. The setting was the front porch of an old homestead in a small village in northern New York where both had lived for more than half a century. They exchanged complaints about the infirmities age had brought them. Marvin speculated that soon he'd have to give up driving because his eyesight was failing, though his eyes still sparkled whenever he spoke with conviction or humor. My mother-in-law's eyes looked resigned. "It's no fun getting old!" she declared with the authority of experience and repetition.
"You know, you could always 'go to Billings.' You don't need Dr. Kervorkian," Marvin suggested. He explained that each winter in the North Country a driver or two is found in a car by the side of the road, frozen to death. "Not a bad way to go. If I decided it's my time, I'd wait 'til the dead of winter and a clear, moonlit night, get myself a Rent-a-Wreck, put a tape of my favorite music in the player, place bottles of apricot and blackberry brandy beside me on the front seat, and drive toward Billings, Montana."
When his wife died a year earlier a friend had asked him if he were going to "go to Billings." Marvin hadn't been ready then, but I had the sense that he'd considered it; and though he'd decided against it, he was holding it in reserve.
I registered the poignancy of the lives of these two eighty-year-olds in the midst of the little eternity of a summer's day in the country. There was foreshadowing, too. In the eye blink of thirty years, I'd be in a similar situation. As I often do when such a realization becomes conscious, I vowed to appreciate the lyrical interlude of a rare day -- not to squander the preciousness of my own being interacting with the life around me.
I needed to connect with Marvin. As he said goodbye, I asked, "If you were to 'go to Billings,' what tape would you play?"
"Paul Robeson," he answered. In my imagination I heard Robeson's rich baritone singing, "Going Home." Death, A Social Construction
Death gives life its meaning. That's so obvious it is almost the definition of trite. But there's nothing trite about death. It is the profound reality of the human condition
Death, however, has been alternately trivialized and denied in American culture. Blame for this sorry attitude is often assigned to a funeral industry that grew out of the peculiar needs of the Civil War to embalm bodies being shipped home from the battlefield. By the mid-twentieth century, the funeral industry had appropriated most death rituals -- and reaped obscene profits by coercing the bereaved. But other factors played in the commercialization of death, including the influences of urbanization, which helped fragment the community and scatter families, the advancements of health care, the expansion of hospitals and long-term care facilities, and an increasing life span. Organized religion, supernatural in outlook and hoping for, if not promising, an afterlife, has to be factored in, too.
My interest in death comes as part of my job. I'm a Unitarian minister, steeped in natural religion and humanistic in outlook. I adhere to tradition only if it remains meaningful. And I've long maintained that our traditional cultural construction of "death" is misguided and often evil.
Early experiences as a minister made me a consumer advocate for the dying and bereaved. Twenty-two years ago, when I first witnessed a funeral director's not so subtle, but wrenchingly effective, compliance techniques to sell highly profitable coffins, I was already influenced by Jessica Mitford's exposé of funeral industry practices in The American Way of Death (1963). I began recommending Memorial Societies. Begun in Seattle in 1939, these not-for-profit consumer organizations that provide low cost, dignified funerals for their members became a national phenomenon after World War II.
On the spiritual side, I followed a well-established Unitarian way of conducting funerals and memorial services: I presided over celebrations of life, centered on an honest and sensitive eulogy affirming the deceased, while also addressing the psychological needs of the bereaved. This way was subsequently informed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's 1969 On Death and Dying, the bible for how professionals best serve the dying and bereaved.
In pace with other emerging trends in the field, I supported the hospice movement -- bringing the dying home from the antiseptic hospital and providing compassionate care. I stayed apprised of the debates in medical ethics over the patient's right to die and merciful euthanasia.
It's now obvious that a flood of change relating to death and dying began to surge about a half century ago. It hasn't crested yet, nor will it soon. Death traditions, especially the institutions that maintain them, are inherently conservative and slow to change. The rather dramatic changes of recent years have come from the grass roots. These significant changes are emblematic of deeper social transformations within American culture. Many persons today yearn for substance over form, for meaning over rhetoric, for reality over dogma. They're determined to reclaim death.
It's worth emphasizing: the notion of "death" is a social construction that changes through time and varies among cultures. Phillipe Aries's classic The Hour of Our Death (1982) established five evolving death epochs in Western history over the past millennium: A thousand years ago tame death prevailed. People lived in intimate communities. Death was integrated into everyday life. Death rituals were both personal and public.
The rise of individualism, coincident with the end of a feudal order and devastations of the black plague, shifted the focus in the next epoch to the death of self. Biography became a literary and spiritual genre, because at death God was thought to judge the life a person had lived.
The Age of Reason in the 1700s, through new lenses of secularization and science, saw a remote and imminent death. Death was such a distinct break with life that it was best put out of mind.
The Romantic Era of the nineteenth century shifted the focus from death of self to death of the other -- especially one's family and beloved. The results could be melodramatic. Emerson actually dug up his son's body to contemplate mortality and renew his grief.
The modern epoch is marked by invisible death. In this era death has been kept out of sight and mind. In part, this began in reaction to Victorian excesses. It is reinforced by the view of the natural sciences that an individual life is of no consequence in the greater scheme of nature.
The changes of the last half-century converge in a halting movement to correct the contemporary shortcomings of invisible death. The changes point to an emerging new epoch, not yet defined. One thoughtful observer of contemporary death practices, ChrisTina Leimer, who has an entertaining and informative Web site, The Tombstone Traveler's Guide, cites certain commonalities among funeral and memorial practices of the emerging new era: personalization, participation, less formality, secularization, greater inclusivity, and diversity. She points out that new situations and dilemmas are often met, when the need arises, by spontaneous rituals created by innovative persons rather than by unresponsive institutions. Her favorite example of spontaneous rituals, the curious "roadside memorials" that spring up like mushrooms where tragedies occur, testify to the need and will of people to fashion meaningful, personal responses to death.
There is ample and varied evidence that "death" is being reclaimed. The changes seek to make death more human and less commercial. A new death epoch is under construction with the timeless goal of assigning a contemporary meaning to death. This work in progress is grassroots and humanistic. Chicago Area Influences
I've lived in the Chicago area since 1983. I've found two local resources particularly influential in my musings about death.
Gary Will's' outstanding Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992) introduced me to the "rural cemetery movement" of the Romantic era associated with my beloved American Transcendentalists. (Gettysburg was designed in the mode of a rural cemetery and Lincoln's famed "Address" was a funeral oration.) The rural or garden cemetery imitated classical Greek practices. It removed the grave from the pallor of the church's traditional graveyard, taking it to the sunshine and fresh air of nature. In an inspired and carefully crafted landscape, a park of philosophy and even recreation, human mortality could be contemplated under liminal influences. These cemeteries remain to remind us today to integrate death with life.
Chicago has two early and important rural cemeteries: Graceland and Rose Hill. Graceland (1860) is better known, thanks to its celebrity mausoleums and monuments. But Rose Hill (1859) is more expansive and sublime -- a not-so-well-known treasure that is a carefully crafted oasis of meaning, beauty, and repose. I recommend you stroll Rose Hill's grounds. Know that it wasn't designed so much as a place for the dead, as a place for the living. You might discover what brings me back repeatedly to Rose Hill: a sense of the continuity of generations within the soothing eternity of nature. Thanks to Rose Hill's influences, I now counsel deliberate memorialization -- dedicating a special place to the memory of a loved one. Such places strengthen the fragile bonds of memory that link the generations.
And each year in late October or early November, I take a pilgrimage to the Mexican Museum of Fine Arts in Pilsen to experience the yearly Day of the Dead installation. This year's exhibit, the largest in the United States, runs through December 10. Day of the Dead altars are spontaneous outpourings of their artist creators. They also are personal tributes to the deceased they honor. They're eclectic in blending the traditional with the contemporary, the secular with the sacred. And they're windows into another culture's approach to death, giving perspective on our own. What at first appears excessively morbid actually grants one permission to explore beyond traditional cultural strictures surrounding death.
The installation suits a late autumn mood -- the midway point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, when the curtain between the living and the dead is imagined to be particularly thin. It also makes good psychological sense in the important scheme of grieving -- strategies we also must employ so that grief for our beloved helps us return to living.
The altars always astound me with their boldness. Their images of skulls and skeletons -- absurd and defiant--make me laugh and lead me to important insights: I realize anew the gift, the value, of being counted among the living; and I reaffirm that the best way to meet death is to confront it, to live bravely and deeply despite its onrush.
The Day of the Dead's public altars, an innovation by Mexican Americans who've emigrated to the United States, fuse native and imported Catholic practices. These altars testify to the persistence and malleability of death practices. They encourage our larger culture to reform practices that have lost their meaning, to dare to innovate, and to be brave in the face of death.Rituals of Remembrance
I can't emphasize enough the value of a good, personal celebration -- a funeral or memorial service that honestly and lovingly eulogizes the deceased, addresses the psychological needs of the bereaved, and speaks, at least a little, to the spiritual or philosophical meaning of death. Such a celebration gathers community. It gives closure to death's immediate, numbing circumstances and is prelude for the effective grieving that eventually culminates in a new life for survivors. The preferred setting is the home, social hall, or church -- now accessible with the option of direct cremation.
I also counsel subsequent rituals of remembrance, including interment of remains in aesthetic, sacred places of memoralization, including well-crafted garden cemeteries. Memorial or Decoration Day, Easter, All Saints Day and All Souls Day (coincident with the Day of the Dead), and Veterans' Day catch the spring and autumn moods that favor remembering. Personal anniversaries are also apt dates for private, simple rituals. Around these days create home altars or shrines that speak to human emotion, and visit graves or memorial sites.What the Future Holds
Demographics predict a death rate that will rise each decade for the next fifty years. The bulge of graying baby boomers, in conjunction with longer life spans, will bring aging and related dying issues to the forefront of cultural concerns.
We will learn for ourselves, then, that Death is no abstraction. This is perhaps the ultimate irony of the human condition: that death gives life its shape and meaning. A culture that denies death or makes it invisible, demeans life and its living, and is paradoxically a culture that has already died many little deaths. A person who doesn't have a well-proportioned awareness, a living acquaintance with death, does not possess the proverbial examined life -- the one life worth living.
If this article were an old Puritan tombstone, its inscription would admonish in all compassion and with deepest empathy: "Reader, Be Advised!" But I also urge you to keep in mind Marvin's parting words.
"Now you didn't ask me about the two bottles of brandy I'd take along." He paused for dramatic effect. "I'm hoping it's a long, slow drive to 'Billings.' And I intend to enjoy myself along the way." Marvin winked and waved goodbye.
Edward Searl has been a Unitarian minister for twenty-three years, the last eighteen at the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale. He is author of In Memoriam: A Guide to Modern Funerals and Memorial Services (Skinner House, Boston, 1993, 2000) and A Place of Your Own (Berkeley Books, NY, 1998), a guide about home altars with fifty-two weekly devotions.