In many ways, I am no stranger to death. As an undergrad, I realized my fascination with death and figured that if I was to have a future in a death-biased career, I’d need to know if I could handle being around corpses.
I had high hopes when my undergrad Osteology lab visited the local Medical Examiner’s Office. However, I was disappointed. Deep in the bowels of one of a white-tiled, maze-like secure Government of Alberta building, I turned the last corner to find….a gurney full of bones. Not a corpse in sight.
I know now that it was more than needing to know if I could handle being around corpses. Death and corpses were fears imbedded in my psyche right along side the Cinderella-complex. I needed to face these fears; I needed to see a corpse.
I did eventually see not just one corpse, but several. I did a practicum working with the MEO in Edmonton. I saw corpses of all different sizes, shapes, ages, and stages of decomposition. And I can safely say that human beings decompose similarly to pigs. We, too, are animals. In death, we are the same.
At the MEO’s, I witnessed a 33-year old woman’s dead body on the gurney. She was there for an autopsy, her death at such an early age giving the MEO reason to investigate. On the gurney, naked and young, she was still a person, if missing a certain something. Viewing her lying there wasn’t entirely uncomfortable, and it almost seemed as if there was still hope of life. However, when the lab technician drew the scalpel across her collarbones and down her chest in a ‘Y’ incision, I became very uncomfortable. I was being forced to shift my perspective: this was no longer a ‘person,’ this was a ‘corpse.’ Now when I see corpses I know that the ‘person’ has already left. It is only the ‘corpse’ that remains.
When my grandmother died, concerned family members asked me if I wanted to view her in the casket. I refused, not because I was in denial. I refused because I didn’t want to look for the glue or thread holding her lips together, or the make-up that the home would have applied to make her look ‘natural.’ My experiences had given me a very realistic view of death. I knew what death was and was no longer afraid to look it in the face.
I have made my peace with death. And, like many farm or country-folk, I feel more connected to life and my environment because of it. Death is a part of life much the same way that the food I eat is a part of my life.
My dad was a farmboy. He grew up ‘weeding out’ the spring kittens or putting down old horses or dogs. He is fully acquainted with death. As such, we have openly, and at length, discussed his death. His funeral is paid for and fully arranged. I know where his will and all relevant documents are located. We have successfully conquered the known entity of his eventual death. Yet there is something more fearful and insidious that is now weaving through my family’s emotions: the slow journey into death. What if he doesn’t die quickly? What if he requires daily assistance? What if my family is unable or unwilling to assist him? What if something happens that makes him a vegetable until the day he dies? Unfortunately, in conquering the great fear of death, we have overlooked this other slower journey into death. And while I am comfortable making a final goodbye to my father, I am not comfortable with watching his lifestyle and independence decay. I know, too, that this also isn’t something he’s comfortable with. This isn’t something that would have happened on the farm or in the old days.
Aging baby-boomers are swelling senior homes to the breaking point and Canada pension is straining. Add to this, a new surge of chronic diseases that leave younger generations unable to work and care for themselves. We have entered an historic period where people no longer die quickly, but we are also in a period that hotly denies aging. How will we cope with a significant segment of the population that is dependent upon government or family support? How will we deal with family members that need this support – financial, physical, and mental – for possibly 10, 20, or even 30 years?
For my family, it’s back to the discussion-table. We need to talk. Talking has worked for us in the past, and, as with most fear-based issues, talking is the path to freedom and success.
How does your family cope with aging and death? Or, does it?
Caitlin Doughty – The Order of the Good Death and author of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory.”