The Subject We Avoid

Here in America, we don’t talk about death. Death is something that “happens,” usually to other people,  and nearly always in other places. Even when it strikes a relative, it’s usually in a hospital and all the details are managed by the “professionals.”

This is a recent development, of course. Like nearly everything else about our lives, the rituals and knowledge of death went through a change sometime around the turn to the 20th century. There’s not an exact date – just a gradual shifting away from dealing with things on a personal level, to turning all the responsibility over to authorities. Whatever that means.

We did it with food. We did it with farming, with construction, with civic involvement, with childbirth, and yes, with death. All in the name of progress, of course.

So I, like most people my age, have never seen someone die. I’ve never handled a dead body. I’ve been to a few funerals, with lined caskets and pews, and flowers everywhere. I’ve visited people who were near death in the hospital, drugged, unconscious, with hums and whirs from the machines that surrounded and impaled them.  I’ve known people who died suddenly in accidents, and once, from a suicide. But again, all my experience is limited to the funeral home.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. There’s nothing macabre about it. My thoughts have partly stemmed from the practical point of the cost of most “end of life” practices in this country. The medical tests and surgeries and ICU and tubes and needles and drugs, drugs, drugs…. a long, bitter trail of “hope” that is no such thing. A trail that most of us follow because we don’t know anything different. We think it’s the only way, that this is how it “should” be. We beg the doctors to tell us what to do and then follow blindly along with their recommendations, no matter how long or useless or expensive. When we do finally manage to die, there’s an entire industry to take care of things, with sky-high prices for all of it. And since most people truly think that the people in this industry are the only ones legally allowed to handle death, we pay their price without any questions, helpless in our ignorance.

As much as it’s in my power, I want to die the same way I want to live – by embracing the big picture that includes me, my loved ones, and our big, amazing planet.

Yes, the planet. Do you really think we have endless room for cemeteries filled with embalmed bodies packed into non-biodegradable steel caskets? Our burial methods are just as damaging as our methods for obtaining energy. Eventually, it’s all going to collapse on itself. So I’ve been looking into green burials – no embalming, no fancy casket – maybe just little ol’ me and a shroud, buried in the ground, to easily become a tree. Yes. That would be best.

A green burial would best be preceded by a “green” death. Not a death in a hospital, perhaps not even in a hospice. No ICU, no tubes, no IVs. Instead, death at home, among loved people and things. I don’t even want drugs, unless the pain is so bad that I can’t interact with anyone, anyway. Some pain medication may be needed, but I don’t want to be so doped up that I can’t hear my husband’s voice or feel a child’s hand. I’ve seen people in that state, and honestly? They may as well have died a week earlier. Life was already over.

This is not an easy thing to request, and perhaps it’s not possible for loved ones to provide it. But to my relatives and friends – consider this an end of life directive. I don’t know how or when I’ll die – it might be in an accident or other sudden way where we have no issues to deal with. But if I’m old and sick and death is slow… don’t make it worse for me or you. Don’t subject me to unnecessary medical tests or surgeries. Don’t resuscitate me if my heart stops. Whatever you do, don’t feed me through a tube into my stomach. You remember how much I love Real Food and natural, organic ingredients, and an honest glass of wine? Do you seriously think I want food through a tube, especially if there’s no chance (or almost none) that I’m ever going to recover or live a normal life?

No, if i’m dying… I’ve had a stroke, or several small strokes, or dementia, or anything that has put an end to true living, thinking, feeling… let me die. Let me die at home, if possible, with all of you around me. If you can find it in yourselves, learn how to handle a dead body and dress me for my wake (for yes –  I insist on a wake. If I meant anything to any of you, raise your glass and share your favorite story, trait, or inspiration and celebrate my life), and then wrap me in my shroud and bury me in the ground. This is all legal, we just need the right forms and the right place. Can’t just throw the body any old where you want to. I’ll try to have all the details taken care of by then, so you don’t have to do the research.

I do realize the “handle the dead body” is a lot to ask, and I won’t be insulted if no one feels up to it. But the truth is, humans used to “handle” this all the time. It was as much a part of life as breathing, and no one freaked about it. Everyone dies. Everyone has always died. It’s only we who have turned away from dealing with it, who prefer to pretend it doesn’t happen until it does and then we turn it over to “professionals” who take care of everything and all we have to do is show up, appropriately dressed and somber. But like buying organic food or putting all our scraps into compost, birthing our children outside of the medical establishment, we can also learn to once again handle death. Part of that is being willing to let it happen without months of futile, expensive interventions. And part of it is bringing death back into the home and family, and sharing the end of life as much as we share the beginning.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Subject We Avoid”

  1. It ‘s interesting you mention this. I happened to share my end-of-life wishes with my brother and sister letting them know I preferred being cremated. As you mentioned, being stuffed and stuck under ground just isn’t for me. And I told them, if they want a way to remember me, they can read a book, which is something I’m passionate about 🙂

  2. This is such a good topic. It needs to be discussed with family more often. Greg and I decided long ago to be cremated. We’ve had enough experience with death that we’re not afraid of handling it. If anything it’s the emotional drain on the surviving spouse that makes it difficult.

    It’s shocking for most people the first time, but it’s not scary. There are certain bodily functions that most people might find unpleasant, but it’s a natural part of death and its ultimate release.

    Thank you for posting this.

  3. I also want to be cremated and no extreme means keeping me alive. My daughter know this and I have a health care directive with her in charge.
    While I was working with older people I was with one lady when she died. Martha was a single woman and hadn’t wanted to go to a nursing home. With the care she was given by the agency I worked for she was able to die at home.

  4. I hate comments that simply say “I agree,” but oh do I agree with you. It is the same discussion I had with my stepfather a year before his death, (these were his wishes) the same argument I gave his doctors who kept trying to prolong his life even though he was no longer conscience of it and it was the kind understanding of the hospice staff who said they agreed with his previous decisions. It is a good topic. Make sure it’s discussed and your instructions are written. Try and cover every contingency, but elect a strong (very strong) person to carry them out for you. Thank you for the topic. I hope people take it to heart.

  5. When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, my parents filled out all the medical directive paperwork, then arranged their own funerals. Dad had in-home hospice care and died in the living room, surrounded by his family. The hospice nurse came and took care of my dad’s body before the funeral parlor came by for pick up. Dad was cremated, and we put his ashes in a lovely vase that I bought from one of my favorite potters. My brother and I will always be grateful for their foresight, because it meant we could focus on Mom during that time rather than funeral details, or making endless decisions in a hospital room.

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