Death is a hard sounding, very final, very cold word. Most of us learned to fear that word at a young age. Many of our parents try to shield us from it. It was a topic discussed in hushed tones as if it were some kind of scandal. Our earliest understanding of death leads us to characterize it as the enemy of life, when it really is a part of life. I don’t recall having a serious fear of death as a child, although I know I did have a fear at one time. I can’t honestly say that I don’t have any fear of death now. Human nature causes us all to wonder about the when and how our lives will end, but aside from that unknown, I accept death as a part life.
I recently watched a documentary on PBS called, “The Undertaking.” It made me consider my first experience with death and how I deal with it to this day. My grandfather passed away when I was about seven years old. My father sat me, my brothers and my cousin (who lived with us at the time) down to let us know his father had died. I noticed that my father did not seem distraught. He didn’t cry. His voice didn’t quiver. His expression did not seem stressed or particularly sad to me. His delivery was very calm and even. To my seven year old ears, his delivery seemed very matter-of-fact. As an adult, I understand he was probably trying to hold it together to keep us from being afraid.
My reaction to the news was shock. I understood to a certain point that I would not see my grandfather again and at the same time I could not imagine how life would look without him. Although my grandfather lived in Canada, we saw him quite regularly. He came to New York to visit us often and we would drive up to see him in the summer. He was a Blue Jays fan and would have my cousin and I do the “Blue Jays chant”: OK! BLUE JAYS! LET’S START THE BALL GAME! This chanting would go on for hours sometimes! He was our excuse to make noise so we chanted as loud as our youthful little lungs allowed. Thank God for those memories.
My father explained that he and my mother would be going to the funeral. I asked if we, my brothers, cousin, and I, would be going too. My father told us that we would be home and a relative would stay with us. I was disappointed. I wanted to go and see if this funeral was like the ones I had seen on TV. Would everyone be seated in a parlor, dressed in black? Would everyone cry? Was there a will? Would there be an argument over what was in the will and who was left what? Would the money from the will make us rich so we could move out of Brooklyn and live in a mansion? (Don’t judge me…I was only seven years old at the time!) My father scolded me for asking the question.
I didn’t attend my first funeral until I was about fourteen. By then, it seemed that all of the adults in my life wanted to make sure I was fully exposed to the harshness of death. It seemed like a strange sort of initiation. The family member who passed was murdered. He was young. He had just gotten his life in order and was taking his place as the “man” of the family; the one his mother could count on to help guide the younger ones in the right direction. It seemed that everyone was concerned about how I felt. Was I sad? Did I want to look at the body before they closed the casket? Was I crying? Did I need a tissue? Did I want to view the body? I recall my mother telling me I needed to go see the body. I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to take in the smell. I really didn’t want the body in the casket to be my last memory of my family member. To this day, I avoid viewing the body at funerals.
Whether you believe in God, or hold some other religious point of view, or even if you don’t, the thing that most people fear about death is the unknown. No one can definitively tell us what those final moments of life are like. Does it hurt? What do you see or hear in those final moments? Is the exit of life just as dramatic as our entrance? How long does the spirit linger? Do we see our loved ones? Will we know how they feel?
Watching the documentary showed me the connection between life and death. I used to wonder how anyone could choose to deal with death on a day to day basis. I thought it had to be a depressing career. I never considered how important the Undertaker’s job is to the family of the deceased gaining closure. They really do become the bridge between the living and the dead. Although they tend to individuals who pass, in a very quiet and reverent way, they tend to the needs of the living.