Saturday, December 13, 2008

Death Never Takes A Holiday

This Thanksgiving two people close to me had a friend whose child or husband died. Not exactly close to me, but still, what effects my friends effects me, in part because I have so few friends. For one thing, it makes me think about death in general, and the rituals surround death in particular. It also makes me think about the expectations most of us have about these particular holidays. And that for most people having a death in the family on or near one of these holidays, will forever after make the holidays a time of sorrow.

For another it reminds me how happy I am to have planned for my own death. I have very little sentimentality about death. There are so many reasons for this lack, but part of the reason is knowing my family's history with a slow and horrible death, and the little kit I keep around for the purpose of taking my own life should it become an intolerably painful burden. Some will find this a horrible thing, ghoulish beyond belief, that anyone could think death would be preferable to any kind of life. But life for life's sake, regardless of the pain, or lack of a functioning body, or the slow destruction of the brain, these conditions seem like a pretty good reason for me to take the easy way out.

Then there is the death industry. Sadly, I haven't heard of any financial troubles for the death industry in these hard economic times. We can sink into a global depression but the death industry will flourish. And to my way of thinking this is an unforgivable gouging of the bereaved. But even in the best of times I have felt this way. Take embalming for instance. I've though for a long time that embalming should be outlawed. It's toxic, for one thing. We utter the words, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust... And yet we preserve the corpse with embalming fluid, put it in a lead lined casket and sink it into the ground. What an odd ritual.

At the mortuary much is made of "honoring the dead," and like a hospital, every minute detail of "honoring the dead" is charged for. Even if you have instructions from your loved one that cremation is the way he or she wants to go once dead, there are details to be discussed with the mortician. Since they can't sell you a casket the price of a Cadillac, they can push embalming for which they charge a hefty fee. If you don't go for that, the least you can do with the body is have it bathed to be prepared for the fire. What a concept. Wash it first, then toss it into the oven. Save the ashes in a costly Urn--another exorbitant expense, when a cardboard box would do just as well. Buy a cookie tin at Big Lots if cardboard isn't good enough for the ashes.

And then there is the deceased's wishes about "the scattering of the ashes." The impossibly romantic and sentimental desires of those who know they are dying and are sentient enough to talk about it and plan their final journey, sometimes enter into grandiose fantasies of ash scattering in all the places they wanted to see, but could never afford or find the time for. But now that the end is near, they can ask the living to make this trip for them as a way to "honor his/her life." Unless you leave me half a million dollars in your will, along with this type of odd after death desire, I will dump your ashes in the garden. I've heard that ashes are good for the soil, so long as the body was not embalmed.

My mother did two favors for me in her life. She died on Christmas morning, finally giving me the one Christmas present I'd wanted for at least twenty years. And many years prior to her death, she donated her body to the University of Utah Anatomy Department. At her death she was living in the Alzheimer's ward of a small nursing home. For the last six months of her life, the only words she spoke were "Fuck you!" or "Fuck off!" and the only meaningful gesture she made was flipping the bird or giving the middle fingered salute as the exclamation point that accompanied these words. She had been doing this to me for years, so I kind of took it personally. But I was reassured by the nursing staff that at the end she was indiscriminate in her bird flipping and profanity. She was always mean to me. Now she was mean to everyone. That made me feel a little better. She stopped eating the day before her birthday, December 23rd, and died early Christmas morning, around three AM, about the time Santa was whispering in my ear, "It's about time you got what you wanted for Christmas. Better late than never."

Since the University picked up the body, wrote the death certificate and put up a marker in their garden thanking her and her family, there was nothing for me to do but write her obituary. I didn't do this for her. I didn't do this for me. I did it for her friends. I listed her many accomplishments and the recognition she received, but left out the one accomplishment that was most meaningful to me--that of driving me crazy by the time I was three years old. I left myself completely out of her obituary. I included a photo of her that I took when she was in her early fifties. She was once a very beautiful woman, and I had captured that loveliness in the photo. But still, death isn't cheap, even with no burial, no cremation, no death certificate to pay for. The obituary (only one column) was over $300.

And in this one aspect of my mother's long life, I have followed her excellent example. I have donated my body to the University of Utah. Hopefully I will have the presence of mind to write my own obit, and leave a little money to publish it in the paper. Death is hard enough on the survivors, so I plan to make it as easy as possible on those I love. But by the time I die, I may have no loved ones. They don't call me that savage bitch for nothing. But at least I've stopped flipping them off.


Stargirl said...

Good post.
I like your ideas and I'm going to check on donating my body to a University. Don't know if I could take my own life, even if I were in pain. I'm a chicken.

Gail said...

Hi Utah-
Strong and real post, I believe I winced and sighed once or twice. I honor your truth.
Clarity is a gift, and you have that gift -

I know what you mean about death around a marked occasion/date/event. My sister lost her oldest boy one November. I don't know where her grief ended and mine began. I learned that grief is very personal, no right or wrong - each of us gets through somehow in the way that makes sense for each.
I learned from you today - thanks Utah.


Ingrid said...

well, you ought to collect some thoughts of 'us' to add to that being yours, it ought to be VERY interesting!![s]


Ghost Dansing said...

Andy Prieboy from Wall of Voodoo wrote "Tomorrow Wendy" about a woman who was dying from aids........

Only God says jump,
So I set the time
'Cause if he ever saw her
It was through these eyes of mine!
And if he ever suffered it was me who did his crying......

Utah Savage said...

Stargirl, I am definitely not an advocate of suicide. I have always been a bit crazy and then I found out I'm severely biolar. Years of depression made suicide an option for me. Then there is the genetic component to my mother's dementia. All the women in my mother's family have died of vascular dementia--it's a long slow horrible way to go. I'm the coward, my dear. I'm just not willing to end my life that way having seen it up close and personal. I took care of my mother for the last three or four years of her life until her gerontologist insisted I put her in a nursing home. She required full time round the clock skilled nursing care. So I have reasons to consider suicide that you probably will never face.

But I do like the idea of preventing anyone from having to pay for a cremation. And truth is, I'm the last living member of my family, both sides. So that burden would fall to friends. Now no one has to worry about it.

Don't worry about pain, there are so many good painkillers. It's the dark hole of depression that is the pain I fear.

Hi gail, thanks for the visit. It's dark and snowing here today. I can barely stay awake. So I'm not doing a lot of visiting today. Apparently neither is anyone else.

Utah Savage said...

Wow, you are out there paying attention. Thank you Ingrid, Ghost. It's a very lonely day in here, and I wrote this fairly early. No one read for the longest time and just when I was responding to my first to readers, you guys appeared. Now it's a party.

I know this is a difficult topic, but watching these two families deal with the Death Industry has so infuriated me. It's hard enough facing the death of someone you love, especially a child, and an only child at that, but to be nearly bankrupted by the cost in such insult to such injury.

Linda Sama said...

I'm right there with ya, sis. I think this entire industry that is built around death in this culture is sick. wakes and funerals are for the living, not the dead. I have no wish for people to hang around my casket talking about me. fuck that shit.

My Buddhism gives me no fear of death, none whatsoever. because I believe what is never born (Conscienceness) can never die.

That is why I love India, death is in your face on the street, 24/7, never hidden like it is here. I will write about the Indian "wake" I saw on the street, I loved it, I wanted to take a photo but thought it disrespectful. I thought it was beautiful, the vehicle carrying the body -- I saw him plain as day -- through the cacaphony of the Indian nightlife on the street. I stood there amazed at how LIFE AFFIRMING it was.

Mauigirl said...

Utah, this was a great post. I agree, the funeral industry is out of control. My father-in-law purchased his and my mother-in-law's funerals ahead of time (part of the paydown for Medicaid for my MIL who has to be in a nursing home). He doesn't want their bodies to be cremated (as DH and I do) but he also doesn't want them embalmed. The funeral director was astonished. Even leaving out that and a few other things most people have (no open casket, meaning no preparation for viewing)it would be about $5000 each.

As for scattering the ashes, you make a very good point. So, if DH and I have any money left when we die we should will it to our survivors so they can take our ashes to Hawaii and scatter us on the beach in Maui! So we'd be paying for a vacation for our nearest and dearest to carry out our wishes. I like it.

FranIAm said...

Oh Utah, what an amazing post.

Before I go off on the death industry, I must note the cathartic feeling that clearly comes through around how your mother's passing was a gift to you. I am so glad that you note that and can say it.

The business of death is about many things, dignity has almost nothing to do with it.

Money and guilt however - they are there in full force.

Prior to her death, my mother would say "Put me in a pine box and throw me in the ground, no marker! Don't waste your money!"

Well when she did die, my brother (ridden with guilt) and I (not guilty - I did everything that I could for her) went off to the local funeral parlor. They start showing you these huge ass motherfucker lead caskets with silk linings etc. I ask where the most plain one was and only after being persistent were we shown that model.

It was metal but not as substantial as others and the simple cloth lining was just what she would have wanted.

When I said I wanted that one the man said that I needed to consider that this was my mother's final resting place and that I would have to live with the implications of this "more simple model." I said there were no implications, my mother wanted pine, so I am already upgrading her.

Then - like you say in your post - I actually haul out what I believe (and this was a mostly Catholic funeral home) "ashes to ashes and dust to dust."

My bro started freaking out but I silenced him with my glare.

Then came the big pitch - what about encasing the casket in some kind of lead or something. I said no thanks and again - the pitch about "the effects of the elements and being underground."

What a fucking racket - they just bilk people at their worst moments.

I don't think I was the favorite customer of that place because I once again was clear that that was not needed.

I actually used to go to my mom's grave quite a lot before I moved up here last year. It was a peaceful spot. But make no mistake - she is not there. What is in the box is what is left of her remains.

Now that she is gone - she is free.

I think that what you did for your mom and what you have planned for yourself is brilliant.

FranIAm said...

Sorry- that was really too long. I go off on this topic and your post was so moving to me, with its clarity and grace.

Madam Z said...

Utah, I am deeply moved by this post. You speak so calmly and with conviction. I agree with virtually everything you have written. Both of my parents committed suicide (not at the same time), so it seems quite natural and practical to me. I hope that I will die a quick "natural" death, but if not, and there promises to be a great deal of suffering involved, I definitely want to take the quick way out. I am curious about "the little kit" you keep on hand. Dare you divulge the contents?

As for that goddamned funeral "industry," they should go straight to hell. It is a SIN the way they take advantage of grieving family, by making them feel they must buy those expensive caskets etc. Hm. I think I'm going to write a post on this subject too.

Stay well, dear, and enjoy life as much as possible.

Utah Savage said...

Fran you comment was so beautifully just right. I am now weeping. Because when I wrote this I worried about offending you. Yes, you. I am an old athiest as you know, and I have offended you in the past. I so love to read your comments. You're so smart, funny, and strangely irreverent in your own way. I was going to talk about how strange it is to me that those that "know" that the body has a soul, and that it leaves the body at death, should feel so strongly that the body is the final resting place. I love the idea of ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Why is there this odd notion that if we rest momma in a lead lined mahogany casket with silk lining and a nice pillow for her head she will rest easier than if we dug a hole in the back yard and wrapped her in her favorite sheet and buried her there? I have a feeling if momma had her way, she would prefer the later than the former.

And you can write pages if you feel the need to express yourself here anytime. I love you FranIAm. Remember my tearful pleadings in the past not to get mad at me? I think of you as a sister. All my sisters live in the blogosphere. For an only child, it's such a comfort to have sisters, dontcha know? Maybe you guys will get to, or have to, write my obit. That would please me enormously. I am the oldest blogger alive, and I won't live forever... I do need to make arrangements with one of my three girlfriends to notify you guys if I croak, so we can dismantle this virtual house of mine.

Utah Savage said...

I spent most of the day worrying that I had written something so horrendous that none of you would be able to relate to it. It was fairly late in the day before Stargirl weighed in. And now, this outpouring of honesty and agreement.

Madame Z, I'm so glad to hear what you have to say. You are the first person I have ever heard speak about the suicide of parents without sentimentality or anger. I'm so honored you came today to share this. And I will come and look for your email address tomorrow to give you the contents of my little kit. The best resource on suicide is the Hemlock Society. They actually publish a book on the subject which can be found at the library. God bless the librarians. Evan Randal. I think Jack Kavorkian is a saint. What kindness to be with the one who is in need of dying and to help ease them out of an intolerable life. In so many ways we are a backward people. Wish I could afford to move to the Netherlands to live my last years. They are so much more progressive and sensible about death.

Randal Graves said...

Whaddya mean even Randal? I'm the friendliest fucking librarian around.

Death ain't no thing. We're all gonna croak. Best thing I've heard for the environment is just dumping the corpse in the earth. Sign me up. My kids will get some loot, plus all my books and CDs. Crack that Motorhead, you little bastards.

Fuck the death industry. Goddamn scam. Dump the body and grieve/party/do what thou wilt.

Beach Bum said...

Yeah I related to this post in a huge way. After I had my grandmother, mom, and uncle who was actually closer to me than my dad pass away I made plans to have myself cremated with the ashes spread over the marsh at Pawleys Island. I actually like the idea of ending up food for the oysters and shrimp.

Utah Savage said...

Randal, I love to tease you. I have great reverence for librarians and libraries. You are a librarian and I have great reverence for you. But as the only snarky male librarian in my virtual world, with terrible taste in music and a passion for sports. You seem like a younger brother, the sort of little brother I would give endless shit to. Good thing I have no brothers. I did have half brothers but they didn't turn out so well, and due to bad luck and general fucktardness they are either dead of in jail or the looney bin. I hope for good.

Beach seems more like a son, but that might be the youthful face of his soldier boy avatar. Well, also his daughter is very young and he treats her like he really does love her. He writes fondly of their movie dates and other outings. So he's sweet, you're sour. What's not to love in sweet 'n sour? And I've never seen him post cheesecake or sports posts, but that just might be dumb luck that I missed the odd bit of pin up material on his site, but I don't think so. Plus, he writes so fearlessly. He's quite prolific, and he has an open heart, he share the intimate details of his childhood. Since I do that too in my writing, I do rather adore him. But then you love him too.

DCup said...

You approach the topic of death with the clear-eyed, realistic vision I'd expect you to. I'm sorry that your mother couldn't give you in live what she gave you in death. You deserved much more.

susan said...

A woman I work with was away attending to her 94 year old mother who had become blind, mostly deaf and unable to walk. Since she had loved reading, listening to music and walking on the beach she felt her life had become insupportable and since this is Oregon she kept telling her children to bring her the 'pill' as they'd promised. In spite of the incapacities the doctors had declared her in perfect health and naturally, from the legal standpoint, were not about to prescribe it. So she stopped eating and refused all drink but for small sips of water. Last Sunday she died.

It was another friend who told me about the legal requirements of burial in her home state of Minnesota where an underground cement vault is a requirement as well as the lead lined coffin etc. Embalmed bodies are, as you say, a dangerous pollutant.. How disgusting is our culture.

This was a great topic and a wonderful treatment, Utah.

Utah Savage said...

Every kind comment brings tears. Susan you are one insightful and generous woman. I wish you lived in my neighborhood. I feel so honored that you read and comment. I know all of you are busy with real lives that take energy and time. Not to mention the pleasure of reading books. But your visits mean the world to me.

Border Explorer said...

I absolutely loved this post, Utah. And the comments have covered all the bases I would have wanted to say better than I could say it. So I'll simply say "thank you" to you (and to your readers) for allowing me the privilege of reading your thoughts and for your breaking open your life at the most profound places for all of us to share.

SaoirseDaily2 said...

I visit everyday, sometimes more than once a day. I'm always a little intimidated to leave a comment, everyone posts such great comments, and mine or so lame. But just wanted to let you know I am here and care about you. What kind of election cookies are you going to bake? I am trying to come up with some inaugeration earrings or pins for us all. Using hope as a theme I will create pairs that express the joy that liberals are back!

Have a nice monday.

Utah Savage said...

I'm baking cookies throughout today, experimenting. A neighbor from France brought me dark chocolate with orange zest. I just used some of it ground up in Pumpkin nut cookies. Does this count as a possible cookie for the Obamas?

Count me in for an Obama pin. And when I get my property taxes paid off I'll feel like celebrating. I might buy some earrings.

Your words are alway eloquent to me. You are all my children and I love you equally. Boarder Explorer and Susan and I are sisters. Actually a lot of us are sisters, brothers, best friends, guys we love, and thorns in the side. But your words are always wanted.

Susan said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.