Do you talk to your dead?
Soon after my maternal grandfather died in 2006, I was sitting with my grandmother — his widow— and she told me something that I thought was weird, maybe even a little dangerous. She told me that she constantly talks to Pop-pop. Everyday, even every hour.
At that time, I was just in the beginning of my “death positivity” journey, and I had this idea in my head that “death acceptance” meant we acknowledged death as final, and stop trying to deny it’s reality through various coping mechanisms, like talking to the dead.
I was wrong. It turns out that talking to our dead isn’t a product of death denial, it’s a product of love and relationships.
My maternal grandparents had a wonderful relationship, the kind of fairy tales and romance novels. There wasn’t one without the other. When you were in the room with both of them, there was this sense that they were one and yet different . . . almost like they were one person divided into two individuals.
So that when Pop-pop died, for my grandmother, it was as though he left and he didn’t. It was though he was dead and alive, absent and present, there and not there because even though he wasn’t there, he was still apart of her because their love remained.
I used to think it was weird when people talked to the dead, and I used to think it was even weirder when people claimed their dead talked to them, but not anymore. Love is mysterious, it’s sacred, and it breaks through hard and fast boundaries that we’ve set in place between death and life. Death denial is a real thing, and it’s problematic, but love allows for both death acceptance AND continuing bonds.
Do you speak to your dead? Do they speak to you? It’s okay if you answer “no” to both, and it’s okay if you answer “yes.” As long as love mediates your grief experiences, I’m not so sure you can go wrong.
We’re living cemeteries. We’re full of dead people, and their stories live on in our bodies.
The cemetery that I’m walking in holds my Quaker ancestors, who came over in the early 1700s to escape persecution and find some respite in William Penn’s “Holy Experiment.”
I’m the result of a myriad of my ancestor’s choices that all came together to make me. As long as I’m alive, they’ll never die. And as long as my kids and relatives are alive, my choices — good and bad — will be carried in their bodies.
The dead surround us, live in us, integrate themselves into our soil. We are who we are, we live where we live, we speak the way we speak, our character is a reflection of theirs because we are them. We are their hopes, their dreams and desires. —
We’re an individualistic society. Everything is about individual awards, accomplishments, salaries, etc. “It’s mine and I earned it” or “this is who I am” type mantras fill our heads. BUT WE ARE LIVING CEMETERIES.
We are not entirely our own. We’ve been carried here — at this moment — by the love, hard work, and heritage of our ancestors. Their love lives in us. Their work carries us. We are theirs, and just like them, one day we’ll become a part of someone else’s future. Our love will continue, and we will be the ones carrying our loved ones.
There’s a problem that I want to address. And that problem is dishonorable funerals.
Somewhere along the way, the funeral industry has convinced us (deathcare workers as well), that the ONLY honorable funeral is the traditional funeral (i.e., embalming, casket, full burial and everything that goes with it).
But let me tell you this: if you think an honorable funeral is ONLY a traditional funeral, YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG!!!
An honorable funeral has nothing to do with a viewing. It has nothing to do with caskets. It has nothing to do with a nice cemetery lot. It certainly doesn’t exclude those things, but none of them are necessary.
It’s a dishonorable funeral if you make it all about a traditional funeral and burial.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve become convinced that an honorable funeral is about how much money we spend.
An honorable funeral has nothing to do with how much money you spend.
It’s not about the quality of casket you buy. Or how many flowers flank either side of the casket.
If you think an honorably funeral is about the money and stuff, YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG!!!
Conversely, we’ve become convinced that an honorable funeral is all about how much money you can save.
That the focus should be on frugality. On not falling into the traps laid by the funeral industry.
On cremation. And simplicity. And dying as quietly and silently as possible.
If you think a funeral is about beating the system, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!!!
It’s about the people that come to the funeral, we think.
But an honorable funeral has never had anything to do with numbers.
It has nothing to do with how many or how few people come to it.
If you get caught up in WHO is going to be at a funeral, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!!!
Somewhere along the way, we’ve been convinced that an honorable funeral is all about the religious element.
But if you think honorable funerals are about which church hosts the funeral, what pastor or priest is doing the eulogy, and which religious cemetery you’re being buried at, YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG!!!
An honorable funeral is so much more than the religious element.
Somewhere along the way, we’ve become convinced that an honorable funeral is about how environmentally friendly we can make it.
An honorable funeral is one that honors the earth. That you can’t have an honorable funeral without a biodegradable casket and a green burial.
I want my body to go green when I die, but if you think a funeral is about your footprint, YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG!!!
Because any funeral that’s honorable is about the deceased. Sometimes honoring the deceased
can involve spending money,
it can involve being frugal,
it can involve a traditional funeral,
it can involve being environmentally friendly (and this is an option we all should know about),
it can involve your friends and extended family,
and it can involve a religious element or none at all.
BUT IF IT’S ABOUT ANY ONE OF THOSE THINGS, AND YOU LOSE FOCUS ON THE DECEASED, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!
Funerals are simple. Really. It’s about us expressing our love for our dead. Cheesy, I know. But when we take the time to acknowledge a death and express our love towards the dead (however that may look), you’re doing it right. Because acknowledging and expressing our love for our loved ones sits at the heart of honor. And acknowledging and expressing our love for our dead loved ones sits at the heart of an honorable funeral.
If you like my writing, consider buying my 2017 Nautilus Book Award Gold Winner, Confession of a Funeral Director (click the image to go to the Amazon page):
Obituaries rarely go viral, but when they do it’s usually for their creativity, originality, or inspirational message. Sometimes, though, they go viral for their vitriol. Below is the latest viral vitriol obituary that’s making it’s rounds all over the internet:
As horrible as this obituary is, it pales in comparison to some others I’ve read. For example:
Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick born Jan 4, 1935 and died alone on Aug. 30, 2013. She is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible. While she neglected and abused her small children, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them. When they became adults she stalked and tortured anyone they dared to love. Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.
On behalf of her children whom she so abrasively exposed to her evil and violent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the after-life reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children. Her surviving children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure.
Such obituaries garner a number of reactions. Some people find some vicarious satisfaction when seeing bad people publically shamed. Some are simply saddened that one life could cause so much pain and hurt that it’d prompt such an obituary. Others are angered that the family would publically shame the dead … who have no ability to defend themselves Still, others think it’s cathartic, a healthy way for victims to cope with the pain and violence
Shaming of the dead is nothing new. Historically, using an obituary to shame the deceased is charitable, at least compared to some of the other ways we’ve done it.
We only have to go back to Muammar Gaddafi’s death. Remember him? The Libyan despot? Remember how photos of his bloated and mutilated corpse flashed across TV screens, news websites, and newspapers? THAT is death shaming.
In many cultures, if you want to show contempt to the deceased, you bury them facedown.
Criminal’s bodies have often been put on display like pieces of meat in a butcher shop.
And the dead bodies of the defeated during war times are often disrespected in unmarked graves, or hung on buildings, bridges, and stakes.
In my book, I talk about something I call “active remembering”. I talk about how we usually remember the dead passively, but active remembering is doing it intentionally. It’s intentionally bringing the dead into the spaces of the living.
There’s a whole chapter dedicated to active remembering in my book, and the assumption is that we actively remember those that we love. But, there’s also an active remembering that’s based on hate. The family of Kathleen Dehmlow is practicing active remembering. And they’re doing it very well because it seems MANY people know about Kathleen and her less than virtuous life.
I guess this is how I feel about obituary shaming: I wish we could practice active remembering that’s based on love as well as the family of Kathleen did in hate.
If you like my writing, consider buying my 2017 Nautilus Book Award Gold Winner, Confession of a Funeral Director (click the image to go to the Amazon page):
A couple years ago, my funeral home buried a saint named Jennifer. As far as I know, she didn’t perform any supernatural miracles, like turning water into wine, but she did a kind of miracle that suspends our natural evolutionary tendencies. Per the testimony of her family, she performed her miracles with everyone she met, far surpassing the two-miracle quota required for official canonization.
Jennifer had Down syndrome. Most of the people I know with Down syndrome have a beautifying effect on their family and friends. It’s not necessarily because DS produces more happiness (studies show that depression plagues those with DS), nor is it because caring for someone with DS makes everything easier (although there are reports that divorce rates drop in families that have a DS member), but it seems that position prominence, egotism, and power hunger have little persuasion on these treasured saints of humanity. It’s as if that extra chromosome 21 provides a trade-off, where there’s less mental capability but more character capacity, providing immunity to that desire for survival at other’s expense. And Jennifer had this spades.
Jennifer lived with her parents, Kathy and Don, who were both in their late seventies and retired. On a humid Pennsylvania morning, Don went to wake Jennifer for breakfast and found her lying peacefully in her bed with no apparent signs of a struggle. She was dead.
Jennifer was taken to our county’s morgue where the coroner did her work in trying to determine the cause of death. When a deceased person is a coroner’s case, if the cause of death isn’t entirely apparent, the final cause of death – and the final death certificate – is not issued for a couple weeks while the toxicology tests await their results.
Kathy and Don entrusted my grandfather, my dad and I with Jennifer’s funeral arrangements. Funerals are like a living mosaic. You give away pieces of yourself throughout your life and sometimes many of these pieces come back to form a living piece of artwork … at a funeral. I’ve worked a number of funerals throughout my 15 years at my family’s funeral home, but Jennifer’s display was a masterpiece. This group of people that gathered for Jennifer’s funeral – her living mosaic — created a wonderful aura of kindness, understanding, and togetherness.
In our culture, these living mosaics take place just once in the form of a funeral. And that’s it. But even funerals are becoming less and less engrained in our cultural ethos – for a reason I can’t entirely put my finger on – we’re slowly moving the dead out of the spaces of the living. Maybe we think it’s morbid to give the dead space? Maybe we’d just rather forget … or we think remembering is too painful? Maybe we think this ostracization is a part of closure?
When we do remember, it’s often something that we stumble upon, passively, and hardly ever corporately. We smell our dad’s cologne in a crowded street and we’re suddenly brought to tears. We find a picture of our grandmother stuffed in our desk and our mind is flooded with memories. As beautiful and cathartic as these passive experiences can be, I’d like to think that it would be even healthier if we invited our dead into our spaces through a more active form of remembering like Kathy and Don did with Jennifer when they gave her a communal space even after her death.
A couple weeks after Jennifer’s funeral, the final death certificates arrived at our funeral home with “sudden cardiac arrest due to sleep apnea” inscribed as Jennifer’s cause of death, a cause that was expected now finalized. I called Kathy and let her know I’d be willing to bring the death certificates to her house, she agreed and an hour later she and her husband welcomed me into their home to show me something they made for Jennifer. I write about what I saw in my book:
“Come into the kitchen, she said. I walked through the archway into the kitchen and saw something I’d never seen before. Jennifer’s place at the kitchen table was covered with a shrine – a collection of items that had been meaningful to Jennifer. I had associated a shrine with the worship of a demigod or saint, but Jennifer’s family took the broader meaning. They dedicated this spot entirely to the memory of their daughter.
“We thought it’d be a good idea,” Kathy said. I was slightly taken aback by the whole thing. If you had asked me the first word that came to mind when I saw it, I would have said ‘weird’, maybe even ‘pathological’. But after Kathy started to explain the different parts of the shrine and their meaning, I understood my reaction had been hasty.
Looking back, I see that my initial problem with Jennifer’s shrine was that it didn’t portray that strong American sense of tackling and overcoming grief. Americans love to problem-solve, and we hate sitting in the tension, and many of us, even some therapists, see grief as a problem that needs solving, a wound that needs healing, and a chapter that needs closure. But Jennifer’s shrine stood in the tension of avoidance and closure and acknowledged that grief is present, it’s present in this home, and that’s okay.
Somewhat unknowingly, Kathy and Don were practicing All Souls Day, the day some believers actively give their dead space among the living. Days like All Saints and All Souls are more deeply felt in other cultures that know how to exist in the tension of the presence of our dead, but for many of us, it’s a nearly forgotten day that comes after the costumes and candy of Halloween.
The term “saint” has a lot of baggage attached to its meaning, and maybe that’s where we lose our way. We’ve packed it with religious meaning and holiness and miracles. But it’s a term that we need to reclaim if we’re to venerate the lives of our elders, and find their power and love in the present. If we remove the baggage and strip it down to its core, we’ll find we all have had saints in our lives, saints who have molded us for good. Maybe it’s your mother who tirelessly encouraged you to pursue your dreams. Maybe it’s your grandfather who stepped in when you Dad left home and family. Maybe it’s the family matriarch who guided your family with her prayers and grace.
These dead – our saints – need to have a space at our table, sometimes literally like Kathy and Don’s shrine, sometimes figuratively. By connecting to our dead, by actively remembering our saints, by swinging back into the past, we can be more settled in our present and propelled into our future, connecting the circle that is so often broken by when the dead are excluded. This is about making us whole by accepting that things gone are still present. It’s about self-realization as an individual and as a family by letting our history inform our inner person. It’s about giving voice to a people that although dead are still speaking. It’s about actively remembering by making sure that our saints, like Jennifer to Kathy and Don, still hold space in our lives.
During this season of Allhallowtide, I’ll leave these thoughts with this question: What are some ways you and your family can practice active remembering and bring your saints into your present?
My book is now available for purchase (click the image to see the Amazon page):