This is my contribution to Edenland‘s Fresh Horses Brigade. She asks: Are you terrified of death? What is your funeral song?
I’m learning that the only truth is impermanence. The moment something unfurls, it begins to wither. Death, dying, spirit energy, that gauzy space between life and death, ghosts, haunting — these things fascinate and scare me.
I remember as a very young child going up to a body at a visitation and touching the face. It was as hard as the sidewalk. I remember being scolded right away for doing so. I’ve thought ever since that our culture has it all wrong about death. I like the cultures that throw raucous parties, that allow mourners to wail, that say the word dead instead of all the flowery euphemisms.
During my stint as news reporter, I was the paper’s obituary writer, which put me in constant contact with all the local funeral home workers. I got to know some of the men and women who handled arrangements. This was the perfect opportunity to learn more about the places between death and burial. I asked questions. I wanted to know details. When I felt comfortable, I expressed interest in viewing behind-the-scenes work. One of the guys, let’s call him Brian, was open to the idea and invited me to visit the inner chambers of the funeral home.
Oddly enough, around the time I was to visit, my father died unexpectedly. When we met again, it was as my father’s casket was going into the back of the hearse. Turns out we hired Brian’s company to do my dad’s funeral.
Brian leaned into the limousine behind the hearse, put his hand on my shoulder and offered his condolences, said he was sorry things didn’t go as planned. No, having my father die at 58 was not part of the plan.
Yet, how could the plan be any different? We don’t have access to the mighty blueprint.
It took me a full year to collect the courage to call Brian. He pulled some strings so that I could be part of a tour of the newly renovated county morgue. On the tour, I watched three autopsies in progress and watched a slide show by a forensic pathologist.
That slide show was unlike any other I’ve watched. I cannot tell you of these things here because they are pale, eyeless things curled up in the darkest corners of hell. Horrible things done to babies, young women, street people, drug dealers, mothers, fathers, uncles, grandmothers. These pictures were evidence in criminal trials. You can complain all you want about violent images in movies, but nothing compares to real pictures of death. Nothing.
When my father died, I went into that room at the hospital where he lay prone and I looked death in the face. It changed me. From that day on I began hugging people and telling them I loved them.
After that slide show, I remember going home, calling off the rest of the work day, crawling into bed, pulling the comforter up to my chin, and just staring at the ceiling. I needed time to process. I needed time to get the smell of meat out of my nostrils.
It’s all a great mystery. We won’t know until we’re there and then who can we tell? Only those who already know. Do I fear death? Of course I do. Do I fear old age more or less than I fear death? Do I fear the death of one of my children or my spouse more than my death? Do I fear outliving everyone I’ve ever known or loved? Do I fear dying before I’ve fully lived?
I fear impermanence and I suffer because of it.
So, if I were to die today, I’d ask that “Apparitions” by The Raveonettes be played at my funeral. How appropriately funeralesque is this song? In fact, the album has a mournful beauty to it.
Somewhere in the program, you’d have to play The White Stripes’ cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Replace Jolene with “death” and my man with “my life” and the song makes perfect sense. After all, we can beg and we can plead with death, but in the end Jolene, with her flaming locks of auburn hair and eyes of emerald green, will always take your man.
Make today a good one.