The other day we were driving by a cemetery, and the following conversation transpired between me and my five-year-old daughter:

V: Mama, what is that place?
Me: That’s a cemetery.
V: What do you do there?
Me: You put dead people there.
V: But I don’t see any dead people. Where are they?
Me: Well, they’re in the ground. See, when somebody dies, you have to do something with them. You can’t just leave them lying around. So usually they go in a box, and then the box is buried. See how there are flowers and those tombstones? There’s a box with a person under each of those stones…
V: But don’t they get cramped up, lying in that box all day? Don’t they want to move around?
Me: No. When you’re dead, you don’t move. Remember we saw that dead squirrel on the road? Remember how it wasn’t moving at all?
V: Yeah, I remember…So they just lay there?
Me: Yup, that’s all they do.

Later that day the kids overhear an exasperated Mama saying to her exasperating husband, “Hon, you’re just killing me…really, you are…”. Poor Miss V tells me that she doesn’t want Dad to kill me. I try to explain that it’s a figure of speech; that it only means that he is really really irritating me. But the idea sticks, and death is all the rage now.

We go camping and the kids are playing with small stuffed toy birds. I overhear this:

V (speaking in a tiny bird voice): I’m dying! I’m dead now.
Fatty Pants (speaking in a funny bird voice): I’m dying too. Who killed you?
V: You’re killing me!
Fatty Pants: I’m dead now too!
Me (unable to resist): But wait! We can still save the birds! We must give them cardiac compressions. Where is the defibrillator? One, two, three…One, two, three…Yes! We have a pulse! Congratulations, Miss V, your bird has been resurrected from the dead!
Fatty Pants: Mama, do mine too…
Me: OK. One, two, three…she lives!

At night the topic is brought up again.

V: Mama, I don’t want you to die.
Me: I don’t want to die either.
V: I’ll live forever.
Me: Typically all people die at some point, but don’t worry. It won’t be for a long, long while.
V: But what will happen then?
Me: Then? Well, hopefully we’ll be back, living again, but different this time. ( I can feel Dad’s stern look on my back…)
V: Really? Are you sure?
Me: Well, I’ve never been dead before, so I can’t really say for sure. But I hope so…

***

Considering the number of people who die each day, it’s baffling that we so rarely come in contact with death and the dying in our day-to-day. Considering that we will all die at some point, and most of us will undergo a certain period of “getting dead”, it’s surprising that we don’t talk more about it.

I remember visiting an older friend in Belgium. On her tour of Brussels, she took a detour to visit her elderly father in a nursing home, and we tagged along. Later it turned out that she herself works with cancer patients, and that many of them never do heal, and die a premature death. I asked her how she dealt with death, with meeting it on a daily basis. She told me that when she was a child, her parents didn’t want her or her siblings to be afraid or unfamiliar with death, as it is an integral part of existence. The family made regular trips to the cemetery, visited dying relatives, attended funerals, talked openly about death. Seems like a healthy approach to me, but imagine if I took my two munchkins on a field trip to the cemetery. I would probably get a call from school after Show and Tell time.

Then there was the Alaskan throat singer talking about her childhood on NPR (years ago). She said that her songs may sound mournful (they do chill you and put you in a profound melancholic trance), but that this is not a bad thing. There is no need to fear it. Just as there is no need to fear death. As a child, she would watch as an elk getting butchered and skinned, gutted, and prepared for various uses in the household. There was no horror or disgust associated with the process. Rather, it was natural, raw, red, and familiar.

When you find out that somebody has died, you’re shocked: “Oh no…how could that be? Is that really so?” But imagine a culture where you could easily say, “Well you know, that’s how it goes.” In such a culture, I imagine the pain of losing someone close to you would remain, but at least the shock would be lessened, knowing (and I mean really knowing, not just in theory but in practice, having seen it first-hand many times) that it was bound to happen to them, and will happen to you. There would be less fear of death, and a healthier understanding of it.

Trying to avoid platitudes, I will say that I think we here in continental America could use some of that education. As it stands now, I can only talk normally about death with my five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.

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