Our high school’s guidance office had a Career Room. Students could sit in there and research different professions, all arranged on large cards in a file box. One of the careers was Mortician, and I remember wondering, who chooses that? What kind of eighteen-year-old, with a bright and promising future spread out before them, says, “Should I work with dead people?”
Most of us are instinctively repelled by death, even at an early age. Ask a six-year-old girl what she wants to be when she grows up and you won’t find many who mention undertaker.
In the struggle between Life and Death, we almost always prefer Life. Death has several drawbacks. For one thing, it’s forever. That’s a long commitment, one we’re not used to making.
You can divide time into three parts. There was that period before you existed, which was really long, but eventually ended at your birth. Then came your life, which, as you know, is also going to end someday. And there’s death, that time during which you will be gone, and gone for the rest of eternity. It’s that last part that gives death its negative reputation: it never ends.
It’s a strange concept, eternity. We understand that there was a time when we weren’t here. We look at photographs of Abraham Lincoln and we realize that when those pictures were taken, the world was doing fine without us. We weren’t there, and no one knew we weren’t there. We didn’t even know we weren’t there. But then we were born and we became aware of ourselves. We don’t remember a time when we weren’t alive. (We don’t even remember being in the womb, which is strange because when else have you spent nine straight months in one spot doing the same thing?) We don’t remember being born either. It seems as though we’ve always been here, and inconceivable that we won’t always be here.
Another drawback of death is that we have no idea what it’s like. Do we go somewhere? If so, where exactly? Some people claim they know, but no one really does. It’s the not knowing that I hate, because maybe we don’t go anywhere. Maybe we die and that’s it. In that case, the people who believed they’d go somewhere never find out they were wrong, and the people who thought they wouldn’t go somewhere never find out they were right. It’s the ultimate injustice.
Some people also say we should embrace death, that it’s a natural part of life. No, it isn’t. Death is the end of life. That’s why it’s called death. People who say death is a part of life have never been dead. They aren’t speaking from experience. They’re just trying to make themselves feel better.
All of our death-related behaviors have at their core some measure of fear. No matter how old we get or how much we learn, death remains incomprehensible. When I was seven, my father took me to the cemetery to visit his father’s grave. I had been named after my grandfather. We had the same first, middle, and last names. My father had explained this to me more than once. Still, it was a shock when I looked at my grandfather’s headstone and saw my own name there. I remember not being able to move my feet as the image of those carved letters burned itself into my fragile little mind. We stood there for just minutes, but I can still sense the emotional damage.
Three years later, my maternal grandmother died. By then I had become an altar boy at our church and was asked to help serve the funeral mass. My job was to follow the priest around while carrying a huge candle. When combined with its brass holder, the candle was taller than I was and I had trouble holding it straight. But I kept trying, worried I’d bump into the priest and equally worried I’d do something to put out the flame. Several relatives later remarked on the tears they saw running down my face, and how touched they were by my display of grief. I was sad, but mostly it was the hot wax dripping onto my hands.
During the decades that have since passed, I’ve been to dozens of wakes and funerals. Every one has made me feel as though I’d been plucked from reality and dropped somewhere else, caught in a strange and disturbing kink in the flow of life. The questions never go away, because they never get answered.
Sometimes people have Near-Death Experiences. They die for a little while, then come back to life and tell us all how beautiful it was and how they no longer fear death. I don’t think this counts. Maybe when we appear to die, our brains stay on for a little while, the way those old black-and-white television screens used to have a little gray dot that slowly faded away after you turned off the set. Near-death experiences, then, might just be stored memories of summer camp and trips to Disneyland. Stay dead for a week or two, then come back, and maybe I’ll listen.
I learned about Heaven and Hell when I was very young. They told us that in Heaven we would never feel unhappy. But they also told us that most people would not make it into Heaven. What kind of reward was this that had many of my family and friends going to Hell? How could I avoid feeling unhappy about it? Maybe I would just forget about them, and focus instead on my own eternal bliss. But wasn’t that exactly the kind of person who wasn’t supposed to get to Heaven in the first place?
Reincarnation is a tremendously entertaining idea, although I think it’s something we made up to console ourselves. “Things will be better in the next life.” But at least reincarnation involves recycling, which is very popular these days. What about cemeteries? I used to wonder what would happen when we ran out of land. If we kept burying people, eventually there’d be no place to put them. Then what? I still haven’t quite resolved this question, and imagine a day in the distant future when they bury the last person and the gravedigger says, “Well, that’s it. We’re full.”
Then there’s Cryonics, the practice of freezing people right after they die and storing their bodies in stainless steel tanks filled with liquid nitrogen. The premise is that someday medicine will find a cure for what killed them, and then they can be simply brought back to life and treated for the now curable disease. The catch, of course, is that while we’ve figured out how to cure a lot of diseases, we’ve never even come close to bringing someone back from the dead, and we probably never will. Plus, they freeze only your head, which for $28,000, seems like (if you’ll pardon the expression) something of a rip-off. At around one-tenth the cost, cremation is much more affordable, although it doesn’t offer the same return on your investment.
All of our methods for dealing with dead bodies sound uncomfortable. They involve intense cold, vaporizing heat, burial in the ground, or storage in some kind of little stone building. They’re hard to think about. Maybe this is why we have so many euphemisms for death. He passed away. She went to her eternal rest. They’re up there right now, smiling down on us. That’s one of the advantages of being alive. We can tell ourselves anything we want about death, and no one knows any more than we do. Except those smart high school graduates who chose Mortuary Science as a career. They’ve had their whole lives to get used to the idea.