This is a reprint of a previously published article (circa 2007), but given the recent spate of deaths in both the public and private spheres (including the incredibly swift passing of Podiobooks author PG Holyfield) I felt these sentiments needed to be brought back up.
A friend of a friend passed away earlier this week. The young man in question was 29 and had died due to complications from a blood clot. Although my friend was only calling for a shoulder to cry on, I offered to take him to the viewing and then to the funeral, because I knew he did not have many people he could rely upon for support.
The last time I had dealt with anything funeral related, it was when we were finally burying my mother. I say finally only because she had struggled with cancer for nearly thirteen years. Throughout those thirteen years, the doctors had warned us repeatedly that she had only months to live, and then she would rally and fight the odds. Because my mother’s death was something I had learned to expect and even plan for, I was pretty placid throughout the whole affair. She called me up right before she went, and although she could barely talk, we could each feel the other through the connection. Later, I believe she appeared to me immediately after she died to offer a final goodbye.
As much as I was in a good emotional place to deal with my mother’s funeral, it was still stressful. I had a lot on my mind, and I wasn’t really able to detach completely from the situation and observe. But at this ther fellow’s funeral, someone I didn’t even know, I had no emotional investment. I was there as emotional support for my friend, but otherwise, I was simply a detached observer.
What I saw bothered me a little. Now, I’m not bothered by death myself — it is an inescapable reality — but I realize that we live in a culture that has a very unhealthy attitude toward death — we try to avoid it, ignore it, pretend that it’s just not there. What this meant at the viewing and later at the funeral was that there were a lot of people between the ages of 20 and 35 who were just wandering around with this lost look, not knowing what to say, how to say it, or even where to begin. There was a lot of hugging and holding and crying from the older folks, but as for the young man’s peers — well, were we ever taught how to handle death?
My friend kept looking to me and asking about protocol. Since he was just a friend and not part of the family of the deceased, was there something different that was expected to him? When was it appropriate for him to view the body? Should he leave something as a token of remembrance? Should he go and offer his condolences to the mother, even though he didn’t know her? What — aside from stand around awkwardly along with all the other GenXers in black — should he do?
I didn’t have a whole lot of answers. What is expected of us when we stand in the face of death? How are you supposed to respond when you are reminded that death is not just something that happens to the old and the frail? It made me wonder how I would handle things if the person in the casket were a relative of mine. (I didn’t cry for Mom but her death was so obviously a release from pain, how could I have?) Shudderingly, I wondered how my reaction would be different if the casket was one of those tiny, tragic coffins that cradled the body of an infant or child. Has anything in this modern life adequately prepared us for the reality of death?
Personally, I think that we are at a disadvantage when dealing with these weighty issues because our culture’s widespread policy on death is to pretend it isn’t really there. We hide it away, passing the bodies of our dead into the hands of strangers to be prepared and sanitized and made all pretty for the viewing. We run from the shadow of the death as time stamps it inevitably upon our own visage with anti-aging creams, facelifts, Botox. And even our cemeteries now look more like golf courses, the memorials flush to the ground so we can look upon a field of the dead and pretend that there are no bones curled sleeping beneath the verdant waves of grass. But unless we acknowledge death, we will still fear it, and when it happens, we will find ourselves at a loss of what to do and what to say. Like so many things in this modern world, death is something we need to talk more about so that when we must confront it in our own lives, we are not taken by surprise.