Hip Undertakers, Seneca, and Emily Bronte

Did anyone read the article in The New Yorker “Or Bodies, Ourselves”? As a Stoic, I am drawn to reading anything that brings death forward for our consideration.  Stoics use thoughts of death to appreciate life, to remind themselves to make the most of time with loved ones, and to remember that most things in life are trivial.  I think death, in addition to being the catalyst for the carpe diem mentality just described, is the great equalizer; we humans are quite smug in the superiority of our species, but we are animals and, like all the other species, we will die and become nothing more than that which we were before we were born. Some may question the latter part of that assertion, unable to accept such finality, but at least it is true that our bodies (if not cremated) will rot just like the bodies of our dogs, cats, and other animals great and small. Seneca exhorted his readers to study death up close in order not to fear it. Given the times and situation of living under the gaze of a crazed emperor, Seneca and his friends needed to be prepared at all times to dispatch themselves at his command.

The article acquaints us with a young, hip undertaker named Caitlin Doughty, who runs L.A. Undertaking.  She is a proponent of returning to the old-fashioned way of handling our dead. Similar to the at-home birth, she advocates an at-home death, complete with participation in corpse preparation.  Returning to the good old days in this regard is worth doing only if we stand to benefit by it.  If by handing over the corpse, we are somehow depriving ourselves because doing so fosters our fear of death or complicates or worsens our grief, then we should take her up on this idea.  If not, then keeping the corpse around is no better than returning to a lot of old fashioned things that ranged from very inconvenient to miserable. Women used to get this task.  Read Wuthering Heights: Nelly Dean is routinely called upon to deal with a dead body. On the topic of women and death, a subtopic of the article is the infusion of women into the undertaking field, which was traditionally male.

One thing that strikes me right away about our having a more involved role with our dead is that bathing and dressing a body is not something we do for each other generally dead or alive. That thought leads me to suppose that I might actually feel that tending the body would be more natural and better if it was that of my own child, but even then, only if he or she were young. However, body preparation is not the sole aspect of the return to the old way of doing things; another is the suggestion to have death occur at home and keep the body there for a while. I have gotten close to that proposed situation to evaluate. I had Gentle Goodbyes euthanize my golden retriever in my home for a backyard burial, which approximates the death experience Doughty endorses. I would hope nobody scoffs at the notion that love of a nonhuman is profound and that the loss can be as great as a human death. I am pretty normal (who isn’t or who is) and have experienced both.  In familiar surroundings, without subjecting Katie to the pain of getting into the car, we remained at home, and a veterinarian of trust-inspiring calm and tangible empathy (a woman) made Katie comfortable with drugs, let me take my time, and ended her suffering. I think Katie had a better end, but did I suffer less? Did having her die at home help me? After all, right behind me will forever be the place where she last lay. My memoires of the room and this house must include her death and the ineffable sight of her dead body, on the floor, then in the blanket that we wrapped her in to place her in the grave dug outside.  My conclusion: it was better that way, so maybe Doughty is on to something, with a large qualifier that I find expressed (again) in Wuthering Heights.  In that novel, Brontë expresses her realization that grief is a personal experience of which the severity or nature depends on the survivor’s particular feelings for and level of dependence on the deceased and not at all on the relationship per se. This is not something Doughty mentions – that dealing with grief is not one-size-fits-all and sorrow does not result in the same ways even for the same kind of losses.

I wonder if Doughty has ever read Wuthering Heights, that death-infused prose-poem, or read it carefully enough to notice all the scenes involving corpses and how some of her words describing her own experiences in dealing with death echo lines from that book.  In particular Ellen Dean’s: “I don’t know if it be a peculiarity in me, but I am seldom otherwise than happy while watching in the chamber of death should no frenzied or despairing mourner share the duty with me. I see a repose that neither earth nor hell can break; and feel an assurance of the endless and shadowless hereafter.”

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