Friday, March 24, 2006

How best to be laid to rest?

Recently, I had the interesting experience of visiting the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston. The picture I've shown here is the section of the museum devoted to 'embalming'.

This leads me to the area where I'm seeking you opinions and discussion. One thing that the embalmer used to do (in the 'old days' the embalmer was your funeral director or undertaker) was come to the home of the deceased and prepare the body for the 'viewing'. After embalming the person and preparing them, the family would keep the body at home for some period of time so people could come and visit and pay their respects.

I don't think we really do this anymore. Death and the tidying up after death has been moved to a more impersonal place in our lives. A person can practically avoid it altogether. The think I like about the old way is that the living don't sanitize it to the point where you could forget the person died. It was 'in your face' and I think that ultimately it helped for everyone to deal with it.

I came to this conclusion in a round about way. Years ago one of my dogs, Torin, was run over, right in front of me. It was winter, nighttime, and we were having a snowstorm. I took my dog's body home and laid it in the garage. Because of the time and conditions I really couldn't do anything with it right then so I sat in the garage, and cried, and petted his body, and cried some more. I spent hours thinking about our time together. My boyfriend came over and did the same, as well as another girlfriend who was close to me and my dogs. The next day, it was still -20 and the ground was covered in snow, but my boyfriend* and I took Torin's body to his house and buried him in the back yard. While I mourned Torin for a long time, the whole process of saying goodbye was really helpful to me in being a peace with his passing, even though he died a violent and untimely death.

Today, when someone I know passes away, I make a point to go to the funeral and any kind of gathering/celebration of their life that might be offered. It is really important to me and find its one of the few times that people let their social masks slip. Emotions are usually running high and people are 'real'.

What do you know of rituals today that we use to help deal with death. Do you think we go too far in modern society to keep it out of view? Do you personally let yourself get engaged in the funeral ritual when someone passes away?

* he's now my husband. Earned a lot of brownie points for digging a grave in the frozen ground in the middle of winter for my beloved friend! :-)

23 Thoughts:

Blogger pawlr said...

I have been extremely lucky in life up to this point in that I haven't lost any member of my immediate family. Each of my grandparents has passed on, but I was not super-close to any of them as grandparent-child relationships go.

I know that for my father, the loss of his mother was greatly felt and deeply mourned.

It can take a long time to heal when we lose someone close. Funerals provide that ritual - when they allow for genuine release of emotion.

That emotion can be laughter or grief, but funerals I think must be legitimately felt to succeed in their purpose.

Friday, March 24, 2006 9:11:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Kyahgirl, I think you're right on that we North Americans tend to push death out of the picture. A youth-loving, death-fearing, yet incredibly violent culture. Interesting. No pics from Iraq that would upset the "masses"; old-folks' homes to sequester the goes on and on.

Your ceremony with your dog I think is far more authentic than the "death industry," which I've seen up close and which over-ritualizes to the point of anaesthesia.

A subset of a larger problem of unreality and inauthenticity -- and just plain dishonesty -- in our current life. All of this is clearly class-related, too...but that's a longer topic...

Good post!

Friday, March 24, 2006 9:30:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

*The "incredibly violent culture" applies to us "Southerners" on the continent, not to you Canadians.

Friday, March 24, 2006 9:31:00 AM  
Blogger iBegToDither said...

Some days I'm partial to Davy Jones' Locker. You speak your peace, wrap midshipman X in a flag, and cast the enrobed corpse seaward. Shark food. No illusions there. No sense of semi-permanent real estate as with burial; no ethereality like sprinkling ashes in the wind. Just a lump of organic material submitted to the reprocessing unit. A humble splash and go.

Friday, March 24, 2006 10:17:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

I like that man.

Reminded me of Trek when they shot Spock's mortal coil into space.

Friday, March 24, 2006 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger iBegToDither said...

Lifelessness in motion. The corpse is a temporary projectile. Ready, set, heave!

In the outer space scenario the dead one could travel for eons and get gravity-assists from neighboring celestial bodies. Under the right conditions you could attain relativistic speeds and become the fastest dead person who ever lived.

Friday, March 24, 2006 11:11:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

kyahgirl - Did you mark Torin's grave in any way, with a stone , cross, or other marker?

Friday, March 24, 2006 12:28:00 PM  
Blogger Horse said...

Ibegtodither: what is your frame of reference? You're already moving so fast relative to something in the universe that you could consider yourself the fastest moving dead thing. Well...fastest moving get the picture.


Friday, March 24, 2006 6:25:00 PM  
Blogger Kyahgirl said...

hey guys, great discussion.

Doug-about the violence? Unfortunatetly its not restricted to south of the 49th. We have lots up here too.

pawlr, you asked if we marked Torin's grave. Yes, we did. Although, when we buried Kyah beside him we never did mark hers. We just mow around there and periodically pass by and say 'hi'. :-) A couple of years ago my son, who was about 3 at the time, wanted to dig Kyah up, just to 'see how she was doing'. He was pretty miffed with me for refusing. Its tough being the ogre sometimes!

Friday, March 24, 2006 8:26:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Interesting that the male got a monument but the female not, or did his marker extend to mean a "family plot"?

Mongol tradition was to leave no marker whatsoever; Genghis Khan was buried somewhere on the steppes, and his 10 retainers who interred him were slaughtered by their 100 underlings, who acted according to their fallen leaders wishes that no one remember his resting place.

Saturday, March 25, 2006 7:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, good thoughts... glad I stumbled here.

You said that you try to attend all funerals and functions dealing with a friend or loved ones death. I am quite the opposite. I hate the death industry that funerals have become and I've never been a huge fan of organized religion either, not to mention that the majority of my relatives live far away.

Last year my grandfather died and a month ago my great uncle passed away. My grandfather specifically didn't want a service and I couldn't go back to my great uncle's funeral. Instead, around the time of their deaths, I bought plants. That's my way of remembering them- I now own a "grandpa" plant and an "uncle george" plant. They're living on and I've honored their memories and lives in my own way.

Great blog! Keep the thoughts coming!

Saturday, March 25, 2006 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger Kyahgirl said...

Hi one girl, welcome :-)

Plants are a great way to remember people. My girlfriend did that for her dogs. She actually buried their ashes in her yard and planted a special bush over each one. There is an aboriginal belief that if you bury someone under a tree, their spirit can be released via the tree!

pawlr-it was mostly laziness if you can believe it. However, my husband got some of our better pictures of Kyah blown up and they hang in the house as kind of a memorial.

There is something soothing in having a place to go to 'visit' the dead. I missed my Dad's death and burial and have gone a couple of times with family members to the place where his ashes are buried. Its been really nice to sit around in his little area and talk about him :-) My Mom will be buried there too. Its a beautiful spot.

Saturday, March 25, 2006 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger Manola Blablablanik said...

Hi Kyah,

I have been fortunate enough to not have lost any "humans" close to me, but I have lost several pets. In recent years, I lost two birds, and each time, I was there during their passing, holding them in my hands. Both of them died suddenly and unexpectedly, from an undetected illness.

The sense of grief at this moment is indescribable, so I can totally relate to your experience with your dogs. When birds die, the vet asks you to put them in the freezer so they can be ready for a necropsy. I know that sounds morbid, but it's the only way you can get peace of mind if you want to know the cause of death.

My last bird, a Quaker Parrot I had for over 10 years and had weaned from formula (six weeks after she hatched) died of a heart attack. Otherwise, Kiwi was perfectly healthy. I held her in my arms and cried as long as I could, until my sister came over and took over with the procedure. After that, I drank lots of wine and wrote a beautiful eulogy. It was the only way I could deal (and no boyfriend around to console me).

I didn't ask for her body back. The vet disposed of it. It was besides the point. The important thing was that I gave her a good life and that she was loved dearly for as long as she lived (not to mention the love she gave me)! Instead of feeling overwhelmed with sadness, I feel grateful that this little bird and I crossed paths.

I keep a photo of Kiwi in my living room, even though my parents, for example, who were very attached to her (she called them "grandma and grandpa" in Spanish), think I shouldn't keep her memory alive. But why not?

I now have a new bird, a very mischievous mini-macaw named Samba JalapeƱo who will be 1 on the 31st! And I find it in no way incompatible to cherish my new parrot and keep the memory of Kiwi alive. Not one day goes by that I don't think of her, even though her body is long gone.

I find that dealing with the death of pets has made me more compassionate and appreciative of the living, human or animal, regardless.

Saturday, March 25, 2006 5:49:00 PM  
Blogger iBegToDither said...

Hi, Blabla. The sound of a lost loved one's voice is often sorely missed. But a departed parrot, good grief, that's a whopper. I wonder, did you make any recordings of Kiwi during her decade of talking and squawking?

I was thinking, if you got a parrot every five years or so, and each one lived longer than five years, then you would have enough overlap for the younger bird to learn to imitate the elder. Then after the elder moves into the next world, the younger would maintain both voices. If this were cumulative, then at any time in the future you'd have a bird that is able to speak like all of the ones that preceded it.

Saturday, March 25, 2006 7:00:00 PM  
Blogger iBegToDither said...

Horse, thank you for your question. You're absolutely right -- we earthlings are indeed moving at insane speeds relative to all sorts of bodies out there, like things really far away and stuff in the vicinity of compact objects, e.g., black holes. And little things like photons.

Since the present thread is about dead earthlings, my frame of reference was one in which most earthlings are at rest (ahem). For all practical purposes, and glossing over minor complications, that'd be your home and mine, Mothership Earth.

What's more interesting is that we could probably cobble together an argument that identifies a suitable reference frame in which we are all already dead. This would require some theoretical hand-waving that the Cyberpolsters might find pompous or, worse, just boring.

Saturday, March 25, 2006 7:10:00 PM  
Blogger Kyahgirl said...

Hi Manola-that's a beautiful tribute t your bird. Isn't it amazing how much animals can integrate into our lives and make us more 'human?'

Saturday, March 25, 2006 10:55:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Indeed. Human is as human does.

Sunday, March 26, 2006 8:18:00 AM  
Anonymous GM said...

Hey Kyahgirl,

Great post!, That photo turned out really well!

As a side note, there was a serious thunderstorm going on when Kyahgirl and I visited that museum...Very appropriate sound effects!

The one thing that really struck me about the museum was the incredible attention to detail in almost every aspect of after-death care. I wonder if there is something almost cathartic about indulging in the ornate wood carvings, the intricate bead work and hand knotted lace, is it perhaps a substitution for personal physical contact?

When Torin, Kiwi and my own dog, Steffi died we were able to go through a very intimate, personal and up close goodbye. We were able to hold our beloved pet and shed tears over their bodies, we could feel their bodies and know that they no longer contained life.

When our human loved ones die social norms forbid that kind of physical intimacy. People would really worry about me if I were to attempt to pull a human out of their coffin and hold them tight and shed tears as I embraced their body, yet when my beloved dog died this was my first instinctual reaction.

Do we spend astronomical amounts of money on ornate and intricate coffins, fancy cars and huge funerals as a substitute for a last embrace and good cry?

Sunday, March 26, 2006 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger Kyahgirl said...

Hi GM! Glad you made it.

Yeah, maybe there is something to that point about the ornate and special trimmings. You'll think me weird but I'd rather hug the dead body than put in a lavish container. I'm a believer in processing your grief, not trying to push it away.

Sunday, March 26, 2006 2:32:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

My father has told me that in mediterranian cultures (Southern Italy, Greece) - its much more common there for grief to be expressed over the body of the deceased. The females get a chance to process their emotions by interacting physically with the soulless body before it is interred.

What we're mourning perhaps is the loss of mourning itself in the bloodlessness of our more modern rituals.

Sunday, March 26, 2006 3:29:00 PM  
Blogger Manola Blablablanik said...

Hello all, parrots are like people with feathers. They "talk" and don't just mimic. THe connection with them is very special -- not that it isn't special with other pets -- but just different because of their ability to "speak" literally.

Birds don't necessarily get along with other birds. It's not a question of overlapping. They're also a lot of work, emotionally. Although rewarding, you really do have to treat your parrot like another person in the house.

When my first parrot died, it took me two years before I could get Kiwi. Then after Kiwi, only a year or less before Samba.

I think it's very important to be able to touch the one you love before it's buried. It's a way of saying goodbye to the physical presence.

Monday, March 27, 2006 3:47:00 PM  
Blogger iBegToDither said...

Fascinating. When a parrot is talking, instead of just mimicking, does it just come out and say things? I mean, does it synthesize phrases? What kinds of observations or sentiments does it express?

When I speculated about overlapping birds I wasn't trivializing the emotional connection you might have with each one. Quite the opposite -- I was imagining that what might distinguish parrots from other pets is their ability to "talk", and thereby help preserve the memory of the ones who'd gone before them, just as humans talk about lost loved ones.

Many people not only treat their pets as if they were people; in fact they often treat pets with more compassion and dignity than they afford other humans.

There once was a guy who loved a magnificent German shepherd bitch. He trained her to fetch, sing, and dance. She got to travel everywhere with him, slept in a special box in his room, and ate like a queen. All who knew them spoke of an undeniable sympathy between master and mutt. In this extreme example, the bitch was named Blondi and the man was named Adolph.

Most of us wouldn't dream of treating our pets with the disdain or contempt that we show for some people. I've heard folks explain this by saying that animals are so easy to love because they offer unconditional love in return.

Actually, a pet's affection for a human is largely conditional, but the conditions are easy to identify: food, shelter, warmth, some physical signs of affection. That can be much simpler than trying to unravel the complex emotional requirements, and meet the half-articulated expectations, of a human lover.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006 6:43:00 AM  
Anonymous gm said...

Have you guys seen this?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006 10:19:00 AM  

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