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.