Friday, May 1, 2015

The Reality of Mortality

As my father approaches the end of his life, I find myself thinking about death.

When I was 13 years old, my mother succumbed to a relatively short fight with cancer. I had been mostly unaware of how sick she was. I'm sure my family (my mother included) thought it was best if I didn't know she was dying. Who knows? Perhaps they were right. After all, I was only a child, and not a terribly mature one at that.

Flash forward 37 years and my father is now dying. I am an adult now, past middle-age myself (unless I live to be a hundred). This time I am aware of my father's declining health. And knowing that, I am doing what I can to create some more memories with him.

In ancient Egypt, people, especially royalty, were obsessed with death. In modern America, we have gone to the opposite extreme. We live in a society that has built whole industries to help us deny the reality of death. Most of us will never see a corpse outside of a funeral home.

People die in many places. Some die in hospitals. Yet when was the last time you saw a dead person in a hospital, outside of a hospital room? Wherever people pass away, you can be sure you won't see a body. At least not for long.

When we see a corpse lying in state at the funeral parlor, it has been prepared and made up. This is said to give the body a "natural appearance." Of course, there is nothing natural about a person stuffed with sawdust and covered with mortician's wax and makeup. These things do not make the corpse look natural: They make the body look more like it did when the person's soul inhabited it. They make it easier to deny the reality of mortality.

Death denial is quite pervasive in our culture. There are numerous corporations selling us products to help us  stay young-looking, eliminate wrinkles, even products that claim to reverse skin aging, all so that we can go about our lives as if we were doing something -- anything -- other than marching slowly and inexorably toward the grave. Hospitals and nursing homes routinely extend lives for years, even decades, so we can all say, "Grandma lived to be 92." Few of us are willing to admit her life had little quality after  age 75.

If you are still reading this, and this sort of thing interests you, I recommend you read  Caitlin Doughty's book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory.

And if you, like me, are dealing with the reality of mortality, my sympathies. Feel free to share your story in the comments.

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