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The Strange Institution of Death

Last weekend I attended my very first funeral for the son of close family friends. His death, at ten years old, was a tragedy. While his passing wasn’t unexpected – he had been sick with several different types of cancer for the last six years – it nevertheless came with frightening speed; pictures from a month ago showed him at Universal Studios, his cancer in remission, looking healthy as he shook hands with oversized bears and princesses.

The viewing, burial, and memorial service were organized and presented (it is, after all, a public event) with taste and respect, but I was still adrift in the oddness of it all. I was often unsure if I should be laughing and joking or somber and reflective. It was as if I were being borne along by an invisible vehicle with it’s own physical laws, like a Willie Wonka elevator of social expectations. I spent most of my time half lost, carried along by the force of the occasion. 

Death is a strange thing in America. It has largely been outsourced to an industry built around the tasteful (or questionably tasteful) and safe and legal handling of the dead and those who mourn them. My mom, thinking back to her own childhood, told me that she remembers wakes held in her parents’ house. The body would be laid out in the parlor for three days and the whole community would filter in and out, bringing food and condolences and booze and company. It was more like a party or social gathering than what we have today. 
And what do we have today? Is there an American way to mourn, other than this focus on the  institutions that handle the dead (funeral homes, cemeteries)? I suppose the church is where Americans come together to mourn, but which one? I don’t think there is an American tradition anymore, if there ever was – funerary traditions are a cultural inheritance based on region (a jazz funeral in New Orleans) or ethnicity (a traditional Chinese funeral in Chinatown) or nationality (boatloads of whiskey for the Irish-Americans) or some motley combination. 
I was taken with the ways in which our institutions simultaneously exhibit and conceal death. Last weekend there was a funeral planner (at least, I think that’s what he was) who handled logistics and crowd movement, and the process of preparing the body was done in a part of the funeral home no one ever sees. At the viewing, I was struck by how lifelike the body was – lifelike but simultaneously and decidedly not alive. It was as if the poor kid had just come in from a jog in the cold, laid down, crossed his hands, and gone. And this was a carefully crafted piece of theater.
It all left me feeling pretty unprepared for death. What are my traditions? Do I have any? What songs do I want played at my funeral (Nick Drake’s “Things Behind the Sun,” and a happy track). Why do we have to make our dead look as though they just finished a badminton match, or a bracing dip in Walden pond? It’s all, I suppose, one of those cross-that-bridge-when-I-come-to-it things.
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posted June 18, 2009 at 12:25 pm

I think our approach to death, at least on the personal level, can hardly get any closer to the concealment end of the spectrum. The open casket is really the last vestige of acknowlegment.
Ont the societal level I think we react to that collectively with our craving of celebrity death photos and the like.

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posted June 18, 2009 at 6:00 pm

The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford was probably the first great commentary on, well, the American way of death.
Tho’ written in 1963, it’s a book I still recommend; J Mitford was such a great one. Same with The Loved One by her fellow Brit Evelyn Waugh. A must-read on the very very strange way we take care of our corpses.

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posted June 19, 2009 at 1:52 pm

gza – interesting point about the open casket.
thanks for the rec ellen. I’ll put it on my library queue…

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