Friday, August 04, 2006

Talking To The Dead

A friend wrote today that someone significant from her past was dying. She was in a panic at the thought of having to go see them. She asked my advice. I have experience in these matters, you see.

I told her to talk to them like a human being. Talk about your history together. Talk of what you’ve done together. Talk of your friendship. Speak on the same topics you would have before the Big D entered the room. Let them know how much they’ve meant to you in your life. If they bring up the Big D - death, ask them their feelings about it. Are they scared and want to talk or are they avoiding it. Do they brush up against the topic with dark humor or innuendo? Take your cues to the one getting ready to make the trip.

See. Death talk is something we Americans don’t do. We scurry about our important lives and affairs with blinders on. Talking about death, except for homilies in church services, usually around Easter time, is verboten in our cultural Diaspora of youth. You won’t see many magazine spreads on planning the perfect funeral or slick advertisements in Good Housekeeping and Vogue on the latest model of coffin or burial vaults. No. Instead, there are ads advertising life insurance with a sweet-faced kid asking dad what would happen to them if he were no longer there to provide for them. But no death talk. No dying, demise, extinction, termination, finit, caput, au revoir, or Big Sleep. We seem to get our undies in a bunch if the topic is broached. Stirs up something awful frightful. We panic.

Here. Let me say this to you: You ARE going to die. It’s as inevitable as taxes. Let that sink in. But you knew that somewhere in the back of your mind, right? Life insurance companies bank on this gamble with insurmountable odds in their pockets.

So. Why can’t we talk about it? Specifically, why can’t we talk about death or get all spooky when we talk TO the nearly departed? It’s not the flu. You can’t catch it from someone in the final stages of the process. Death usually doesn’t rub off on you. You can’t catch it from the toilet seat.

I’ve thought that perhaps we feel uncomfortable talking to those about to die like we’re afraid we’ll look directly at someone’s hair lip or amputated leg, their wheelchair or their infirmity, their burns or scars or deformity. Our uptight Victorian based society makes us squeamish around death and bodily imperfection. Funerals aren’t much fun as a rule and everyone is very morose and upset. Unless the person past tense has requested a really rowdy party.

I’ve been around death. I’ve told you before that I am the last remaining survivor of my family of four. I’ve had close cousins die old and young, good friends pass with illnesses or weak hearts or murders or the other calamities that befall frail flesh. I’ve even looked into the gaping maw of Death myself because the kind of Mach 10, 60 MPR with hair afire life I’ve led has put me in some very shaky circumstances with my share of close scrapes. I’ll tell you about some of those in the future.

I’ve always considered it an honor to be around someone packing her bags for the Summerland trip. We’re there for other passages – weddings, baby showers, birthdays, graduations. Why then can’t we celebrate the nearly departed in for their own bon voyage?


I stayed with my mother the last six months of her life 24-7 as she prepared for her death under hospice. Let me abuse you of the notion that full-time custodial care for a difficult adult is a breeze. It ain’t. I suffered from sleep deprivation and extreme fatigue among other horrors. But I got through it, heralded her out, led a toast to her as friends gathered around her deathbed with a, “Well done, Mame”.

It was comforting to help the nurse bathe her and get her ready for her last ride. Those cultures that tend to the bodies of their dead have a leg up on us to defray guilt. It makes death up close and personal and puts some pegs in the closure column.

Saying this is not a condemnation of those poor souls, usually us women, who are stretched tissue thin between elderly parents and growing children. Our society and government make sure that there are damn few resources to help with that care and strain. We’re just not set up to handle the profound drain of energy and emotion that the caretaker is subject to. Been there. Done that. Nor am I advocating a return to the several generations living under the same roof for centuries. I’ve had several mothers-in-law that would end up missing under suspicious circumstances to foist that off on you.

I’m also not saying that we should bring up children to run around playing amid the beds of the terminally ill like Ayn Rand’s mule bred brood in ‘Anthem’. But, isn’t death and dying one of the life lessons we should at least teach ourselves and talk to our children about?

Our culture favors separatism, the ME, I, Individual. Because of our small, not-ready-for-nuclear-living family lifestyle, we have moved from our Agrarian roots, close-knit communities and extended families to warehouse our infirm and elderly in not-so-antiseptic places called ‘retirement homes’. This says a lot to how much we don’t want to be bothered by death and the preoperative mechanicals that go with it. If you don’t see it, you don’t have to deal with it.

I’m not flippant about death as the Ruth Gordon’s Maude is with her sunny bright umbrella attending every funeral she can when Harold meets her. Okay. Maybe I am flippant. But. We really need to look at this. All of us. Our penchants, our fears, our squeamishness. Let's have Plan Your Own Funeral cocktail parties. Maybe if we go at IT with morbid humor, show videos of ‘Death Becomes Her’, Bela Lagosi’s ‘Dracula’, ‘Dr. Strangelove’, and ‘Ghost’ playing in the background while we fill out DNRs, Living Wills and pick songs we want at our wake while eating crudités and sipping martinis, we might morph into some real conversation about the topic of talking to the dead.


Life is a veritable smorgasbord with lots of planned and spontaneous activities to do while we’re on deck. But we’re all going to debark and it would be nice to have a few conversations about it, or at least a card before we get into port.

3 comments:

Martha Marshall said...

"Life is like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink." - Suzuki Roshi

(quoted in "This Season's People" a book of spiritual teachings by Stephen Gaskin.)

JJ said...

For some reason, I really enjoy talking about death. It's one of the few real, true conversation topics. Politics, religion, the weather, etc... These things only exist in our own perception. Death happens outside of our control - outside of our perception.

But even though I realize it's a serious topic, I'm also pretty flippant about it. It's gonna happen. I can't stop it. So there's no use sweating it. Might as well have a laugh or two.

Juan Bielsa said...

Nowadays nobody talks about death. We live as if death does not exist. I do not like talk about it, either. But I like think, and meditate, about HOPE, about LIFE, I like have confidence in Jesus. I'm not a "religious" person, in the traditional sense, because I do not have a "correct" creed. I'm a "solitary" in this matter of spirituality. But I do need it, I need the words of wisdom of Jesus or Buddha, I have the necessity to BELIEVE. If one believes, death maybe is a door into a reign of Beauty and Peace, death, in this case, is not so bad... But, it is difficult to acquire this FAITH.

And nevertheless, I think that this FAITH, and JESUS (or BUDDHA... or another Seer of Love) is the reason of our existence. I paint, and I write, and I live, with the hope that one day, perhaps, we'll meet again our loved ones that departed, long time ago...

My best wishes to you,

Juan Bielsa
www.poeticpainting.com