Sometimes I write about her directly, sometimes less clearly, but I write about death as often as I pick up a pen it seems. Death is even a major player in the scifi-fantasy epic Moira and I are writing, turning up as two separate characters with two distinct, vital roles. So what gives? Why am I so obsessed by death?
Surprising no one, I had a goth phase in high school. Yes, some photos survive. Relics of a bygone era that few have laid eyes on and fewer still possess their sight for having seen. Luckily I never tried to dye my hair black. This has little relevance to my death obsession and is mostly a confession; will you absolve me, O Internet Masses?
Death has been omnipresent in my life from its inception. I had a brother who was miscarried a year before me. I was born halfway to term and sentenced to die. I drowned a handful of times in childhood; always to be rescued. A number of family members who doted upon me died before I was 6. Then, my medical problems began. I won’t lay them out here but suffice it to say the ER and surgical staff at regional hospitals were on a first name basis with me. By the time I was 14 two of the women who had raised me, my grandmother and great-grandmother, had died, too, of age and infirmity and I was spending a good deal of my time debating the pros and cons of dying, too. I had my reasons. Most recently, I had a showdown with Death thanks to a blood clot in my brain back in January, 2017.
Despite the death so close to me I never knew grief. This was the dynamic of my household, explored elsewhere on this blog: I was to feel nothing but calm while my mother and her husband were unstable riots and so it has always been. But there’s more to it.
In the monolith that is “Western” culture we do not “handle” death. We sanitize, medicalize, and compartmentalize death until we are so separate from it that we are even legally forbidden to see clean, charred bones within cremated remains. It’s true. Crematory operators are required by law to grind up bones left over into uniform dusty ashes– gods forbid the relatives of the deceased be faced with a piece of a femur. The machine used is called a “cremulator”. Google it.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, we would tend our dead by hand because they had died in their beds at home. We would wash them with love and sing them into whatever beyond awaited them and we would mourn for them. Yet somehow now we live in a world where we are told that fresh corpses are unhealthy (spoiler alert: most of the time they are not) and we’re better off pumping our dead full of carcinogens that have negative, lasting impact on the environment instead of letting them rot into the earth as corpses have been doing without harm for millions of years.
My great-grandmother had her sister’s braid– as long as I was tall, grey streaked with brown– in a jewelry box in her bedroom that had been cut from her head the day she died, during her wake. She would let me take it out and touch it, feel the smooth strands. It never struck me as strange that it came from a dead woman and my great-grandmother would tell me stories about Great-Aunt Norene and their siblings while I pet her hair and wondered how one woman could grow so much lovely hair. I wanted to leave something like that after my death and the thought of doing that comforted me as a child surrounded by so much dying.
I have to wonder if there is something about this confrontation of death that allows grief to take place. If it is healthier for survivors to be able to tend their dead personally. To have a script to follow, some role to perform — when people lack scripts for their behavior they tend toward anxiety which breeds all manner of issues from aggression to depression, after all. If we see and touch death on a level that is familiar in a way that we choose then it is less traumatic and we can assimilate it more easily into our daily lives. We can then face our own fears about death.
I feel robbed by growing up in a place– both home and society– where I could not discuss death, the dead, dying. How much more peace might I have found and how much younger would I have found it had I been exposed, healthily, to those processes?