Let’s talk about death, baby
September 2, 2014 § 5 Comments
I attended my first funeral when I was 16. It was my mother’s, and I had no idea what to expect. She died suddenly, unexpectedly and it’s probably one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever experienced.
It took me years to work through the denial stage of grief: 10 to 15 years later I was still having recurring dreams where I would bump into her somewhere and discover that she hadn’t really died, she’d just left because she needed a break, some time away.
Just before my first child was born, 15 years ago now, my friend Neville died after a long battle with cancer. I stood at his bedside with his wife and some mutual friends, and watched as he slowly, peacefully slipped away. One minute he was there, and the next he was not, and it was honestly one of the most moving, beautiful things I have ever witnessed. This time, there was no denial at all – I had seen him die with my own eyes.
It reminded me of an ossuary I once visited in an alpine village in Austria. I forget the village’s name, but it was built on a steep incline, overlooking a magnificent lake, and was a wonderland of warren-like cobbled passages and pathways, so quaint that it felt unreal, as though Walt Disney had built it as a film set.
The ossuary was in a smallish building beside the church, filled with rows of skulls and bones neatly packed onto shelves, the skulls decorated with a motif and the deceased person’s name. And it wasn’t ghoulish in any way. There was a strange peace about the place.
Our guide recalled that her childhood friend’s father was the person tasked with painting the skulls. “He would stand at a window overlooking the lake and talk to the skull as if the person were still there, while we played nearby,” she said. “We didn’t think it odd; we weren’t frightened by seeing the skull. Death was a normal part of life.”
Perhaps it’s a feature of western culture, but I think this is where many of us go wrong: we shield our children from death, and we avoid talking about it ourselves. It frightens us, so we prefer to not even think about it. We are seldom there when our loved ones die: one minute they’re alive, and the next they’re enclosed in a coffin.
Death has been sanitised to a large degree; obscured from view, except in graphic images of bloodied bodies on TV newsreels and crime series. It’s such an imbalance: by and large, we are simply not exposed to ordinary, everyday death. It’s no longer allowed to be the yin of our everyday yang. And so, when it does happen to us – and it will – it’s such an enormous shock that we are left reeling.
I’m not suggesting that we expose our children to an array of dead bodies at every opportunity, or insist on an open coffin at every funeral, but I do think it’s important to stop trying to pretend that death doesn’t exist. That it only happens to other people.
Because grief is as much a part of life as joy is. That’s normal, natural and right, no matter how many happy-ever-after stories you tell yourself. We need one to fully appreciate the other. We need the lows to enjoy the highs.
Death isn’t some aberrant, exceptional event, after all. It may be sudden, sure, or a shock, but it’s a perfectly normal part of life. It’s time we started treating it as such.