I grew up across the street from a cemetery, learned to ride my bike there. I watched many funerals from afar. My mom’s into history, and brought us to historic graveyard to make grave rubbings when we were kids. We learned about the gravestone iconography. As a teenager, I spent quite a lot of my free time in cemeteries, took a lot of angsty photographs there. When I travel, I usually make a point of visiting the local cemeteries.
I’ve always had a bit of a morbid bent: a love of Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, Poe, Plath, Sexton, Cave, Dracula, Salem, horror movies, goth, Victoriana, murder mysteries, the color black, hair art, ebony, ravens, vultures, skulls, saints’ relics, anatomy museums, memento mori. My fave youtube channel is Ask a Mortician. I guess I think about death now and then.
Do you recall that song People Who Died? I’m middle-aged, truth be told (if I’m lucky), and some of my people have died. I could write that song if I dug deep enough, but here’s the story of some of them.
Three of my grandparents died before I knew them. The grandmother I knew and loved died when I was a teenager; we kissed her corpse goodbye the morning after she died unexpectedly in her sleep. Her skin was still soft, if cold.
In high school, a childhood friend of mine’s mom hanged herself. She had always been depressed, but it was still a horrible shock. She left behind two teenage children and many friends, one of whom found her. In my early twenties a friend in my punk circle died of a drug overdose, but he wasn’t a close friend, and I didn’t go to the funeral, although I would have dated him in a heartbeat when he was alive. A decade or so later, one of my best childhood friends killed himself. We hadn’t been close since we were ten or so, but still I wept and wept. Suicide seems such a lonely act.
In college I was pals, but not super close, with a known junkie. She was a hilarious sweetheart, and after I left the Happy Valley, we found each other on the Facebook, like you do. Years later I wondered what she was up to and checked up on her, only to discover she had died of a drug overdose months prior. Her FB wall was full of memories and tributes.
My dad is the youngest of seven Irish Catholics, now the youngest of two. I’ve been to many of his siblings’ funerals, always traditional, open-casket, formal Catholic affairs. My dad himself enjoys a good funeral, and taught me to appreciate obituaries, the Irish Sports Pages, as they are known. As a former newspaper reporter, he’s an expert in the best writing in the paper. The obits are a place where an ordinary person can have their bio written for us all, although this is an art that is dying, so to speak.
Have you noticed there are codes in the obits? When I lived in rural Maine, 2000-2001, I loved the obituaries because there were so many old women who died in their 90s or older. Most of them had lived in Maine their whole lives except for a brief time either as college students or during WWII. People seemed to die old in Maine, and they had good stories. I got a subscription to the paper a while back in Boston because I missed those obits. In the later papers, however, while people were still dying in their 90s, many were also dying in their 30s and 40s. These people were dying “unexpectedly,” clearly from drug overdoses. I don’t think we should whisper about any kind of death. There is nothing for survivors to be ashamed of when their loved ones die, no matter how they go. Making suicide and overdoses or whatever taboo doesn’t help anybody, in my opinion, it only makes the living feel worse when they already feel terrible. Like one way to go is more honorable than another. So immaterial.
I go to the funerals of friends’ family members when possible. Funerals are, after all, for the living, not the dead. We attend to support the survivors. This means I have been to some traditional Jewish funerals to compare with my family’s traditional Catholic ones, and I must say, I prefer the Jewish, although I do sometimes like the strangeness of the open casket.
When local legend Billy Ruane died, we paid our respects at the wake, his incredibly non-lifelike corpse looking like a poor wax model of the man. Still, it was good to say goodbye to an era in person.
Speaking of the end of an era (we should mark these too, somehow!), when I left my job as projectionist, I passed the reins to a cool character, another one I would have dated under different circumstances, who didn’t smoke cigs on the balcony with me because he had fought off cancer years before. Just a year or two later it was back, and he slowly but surely succumbed to it. A friend and co-worker of ours put him up when he was no longer able to pay his rent and needed looking after. I wasn’t living in town, but I stopped by to see him when I could. I was, and am, so impressed with her for being so selfless – I imagine it’s not easy to turn one’s home into a hospice. It tends to end predictably. I called occasionally and wrote him letters. He said many of his friends had stopped seeing him. He was young, as were they, and he understood they were unable to deal with his impending death. I missed the funeral due to a misunderstanding of dates, but I think of him when I cycle past the house.
My godfather, a longtime smoker, died of issues related to emphysema, when I was a teen. We had a while to say goodbye, but it still really hurt when he went.
My godmother and her husband died of cancer not long ago. With her, it was a long process. Her health came and went, and we had plenty of time to say goodbye. My mother was able to spend quite a bit of time with her, knowing she wouldn’t be with us forever, as none of us are. Her husband died soon after she did, of the same cancer. It was so devastating – he had taken care of her for over a year, but then he went very quickly without her. They both had time to say goodbye to their loved ones, but him, just barely.
A while back a professional friend of mine, well, not a “professional friend” (I can’t afford professional friends, just the volunteer types), but a friend I knew because of film things, got cancer and finally died from it. Toward the end, we were together at a conference, and I didn’t recognize him because of the effects of chemo. It’s not unusual for me not to recognize people under the best of circumstances, so it wasn’t the disaster it might have been, but still, not cool! But this is a common problem for regular people, seeing friends who are undergoing chemo and not recognizing them. Sometimes they know you might not recognize them, other times they probably don’t. Not much you can do, I guess.
A friend of mine from when we were punk teens unexpectedly popped up again in my life on a film screen – she was in the film another friend of mine had made! When I saw her, the actress, in the flesh at a screening, I barely recognized her from our real lives, and I didn’t manage to re-introduce myself, mostly out of the usual shyness and anti-social-ness. I never got a second chance, because next I heard, she had been murdered, apparently by strangers. It was a horrible story, and still feels at loose ends – her killers were arrested but what has happened since? The internet won’t tell me. When we were 15, I didn’t expect her to be the one to go, there seemed to be others with worse potential futures, but we weren’t close enough for me to know all her secrets. I still have many excellent art-letters from her from thirty years ago, an archive of a long-gone teenage time.
Last year a friend of mine at work dropped dead of a heart attack on the job. His brother had died the year previous, of complications from diabetes. His (my co-worker’s) funeral was the saddest I’ve ever been to. He was young – in his 50s I guess – and there were a lot of us from work at the service, but we didn’t go to the wake or the grave, just to the church (we were on a bus, as it was far from work). It was a Catholic service, in a beautiful 1960s, post-Vatican II, wooden church-in-the-round. It was a strikingly impersonal, yet very personal, service. We all cried.
Last week a friend of mine died unexpectedly. He had been diagnosed with an untreatable death sentence, a disease that wasn’t going to let him off easy. He chose his own way out, one that left his friends and family unhappy and shocked. My initial response was that I want my friends to stay alive, that suicide isn’t a good choice. But I take it back.
I think we should have the option to choose the manner and time of our departure. Death is not often sudden and painless like it was for my grandmother, who died alone in her sleep. Death by overdose is probably pretty easy for the one who dies, but not so easy for the rest of us. Please don’t go this way. Slow death by cancer is common (see many stories, above), but I can tell you from experience that saying goodbye to someone multiple times is very hard. The Long Goodbye, while amongst my favorite movies, is not great in real life. When every time you say goodbye could be the last, it’s stressful, probably on both sides.
My dad sent me an article from a magazine a while back, about how to determine when it’s the right time to put your pet down. He wrote in the margins, “this is how I want to go,” and I completely believe and agree with him. Who wouldn’t want to choose the right time and place to go, reliably, under medical supervision? But we didn’t vote in medically-assisted suicide in Massachusetts last year, so I guess dad will have to move to Vermont and stay alive there for a few years if he wants a civilized end. Doesn’t really seem right, does it?
If you have the opportunity to vote on a medically-assisted end of life bill, please consider voting for it. I don’t know how much death you’ve had in your life, but you will have a helping of it eventually, as do we all. It is good to be able to say goodbye to people. An opportunity to predict and schedule one’s death seems like an incredible gift – one I hope to have when my time comes.
Now another good friend of mine at work is dying. He’s had cancer, and like it does, it’s come back and is going to get him this time. He’s on a quick decline, it looks like. I’m glad we have a chance to say goodbye, but I’m really going to miss him. This post is for him and me and ours.
Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy.