I write in my book,
When hardship comes, some hearts are broken apart, and like pottery or glass, those hearts are difficult to put back together. But other hearts are broken open like a fist that opens itself to receive and give back, or like clay that adapts to pressure. Whereas death’s wildeness can shatter the well-ordered, rigid life, it can open those who have learned to flow with the waves of life. The broken-open heart, the heart that has been molded by pain and suffering, knows to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
One. One of the factors that differentiate the broken open heart from the heart that’s broken apart is this: the broken-open heart doesn’t believe that brokenness is shameful. The broken open heart starts with the assumption that it’s okay to be broken. It’s okay to feel deeply. It’s okay to have your life washed over by the emotions of death. On the flip side, sometimes we respond to our brokenness from a place of shame and fear. We fear our emotions. We fear grief. We fear being sad. We fear death itself and we absolutely fear the perceived imperfections of such brokenness. “Because anything that’s broken isn’t perfect and isn’t lovable,” we think.
Two. The broken open heart doesn’t see emotional turmoil as an unlovable imperfection. The idea that broken things can’t be loved is simply untrue, but the ever pervasive narrative that’s perpetuated through Hollywood and everywhere else is that only perfect things can be loved. Somewhere deep inside the broken-open heart resides a belief, however small, that says, “perfect things are broken and we can be loved.”
Three. Befriending death and all the brokenness, fear, and perceived imperfection that comes with it often gives us room for others’ pain. By accepting our own pain and stripping it of shame, we’re able to accept the pain of others. By accepting our own perceived imperfections, we can more easily accept the perceived imperfections in others.
Four. “It uses its own pain to find love for those we don’t like.” Simply put, the broken open heart has room for other broken things. Everyone can see the broken imperfections of others, but the broken open heart looks past the imperfection others and does the courageous work of seeing the pain behind the brokenness.
Five. “The broken-open heart seeks to understand.” When we are able to befriend our own brokenness, we start to see the deep connection between pain and real-world actions, and attitudes. In fact, many of the people we don’t like, people who are different than us, or people who think differently than we do aren’t inherently different than we are, they are just responding differently to the pain in their lives. If we can understand a person’s pain, we can begin to understand the engine of their being.
Six. The broken open heart is “slow to take offense and quick to forgive” because when we understand the pain behind the actions when we allow ourselves to lean into the pain, we can see that their offense is more a response to their pain than to us. Yes, pure evil exists in the world, but even those that are evil are responding to evil done to them. Sometimes people are just mean, but most of the time they’re just projecting their pain onto us.
Seven. “The broken-open heart uses grace to build and bind the broken.” When we find a path through our brokenness, we learn a very hard-earned lesson: finding wholeness doesn’t come through shame, it doesn’t come through criticism, it doesn’t come through fear of punishment (or fear in general). Our path through brokenness is made possible by love and grace.
Most of us guard our heart and for good reason. We’ve been hurt by the ones we have loved, by those we’ve trusted and those who we’ve given an intimate piece of our souls. But somewhere in the midst of all that heart protection, there’s a little opening that still harbors a sense of trust, courage, and love. As I deal with my own brokenness, and as you deal with yours, I hope you find ways to fan the embers buried deep within your heart. I hope that we can all find a way to be broken open.
If you want to read more about my broken-open journey with death care, here’s the book I wrote.
My first couple years in the funeral business nearly destroyed me. Growing up as the son of a funeral directing family, I had danced around death for most of my youth. When I finally danced with it upon full-time employment at my family’s funeral home, all I could see was darkness. I had a death negative narrative, a pair of lenses that viewed death as devoid of goodness and full of fear. I suppose most of us do.
In my book, I list five reasons this narrative is so strong; such as the professionalization of death care, the religious belief that death is a punishment for sin, and our evolutionary heritage. This narrative doesn’t exist in every culture, but it’s so strong for us in Western culture even death’s personification is this scary and dark figure we call the “Grim Reaper.”
The rise of the cold and bony Grim Reaper began during the 14th century, as the Black Death swept over Europe leaving anywhere from 25% to 60% of Europe’s population dead. Those infected suffered high fevers, seizers and possible gangrene of the extremities. Such an awful death produced a fear among the healthy, who regularly abandon their affected spouses and children. Not surprisingly, Death was depicted as the Grim Reaper, a bony figure with no flesh and no feeling with a scythe that mows down the living with reckless abandon. What is surprising is that this personification of Death didn’t die out with the Black Death, but remains THE depiction of death in Western culture today.
After my closeness with death nearly destroyed my own life, I knew that I’d either have to find something more in death, or I’d leave the business. As I searched, I began to see that death wasn’t entirely bad … it was deeply human. I write in my book, “I tremble to say there’s good in death, because I’ve looked in the eyes of the grieving mother and I’ve seen the heartbreak of the stricken widow, but I’ve also seen something more in death, something good. Death’s hands aren’t all cold and bony.”
Death isn’t the Grim Reaper. It isn’t unfeeling. It isn’t subhuman.
Marzanna is death personified in Baltic and Slavic lore. Unlike the “Grim Reaper” with the bony hands, or other popular personifications of death, Marzanna takes on the gender of a woman, as she’s not only associated with death but the rebirth of death in nature. Neil Gaiman brought a Marzanna type depiction to his comic book series, The Sandman. Gaiman’s Death is a beautiful, youth goth woman who is kind, relatable and nurturing. She’s nearly the exact opposite of the Reaper, a welcome sight to be sure, and one that continues to be a fan favorite.
As much as I like Gaiman’s personification, there’s another personification of death that comes from St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182 – 3 October 1226) that is more intimate still than Gaiman’s Death.
St. Francis committed his life to serving the poor, a commitment that inspired a following in the Catholic Church known as Franciscans, and a Pope who took Francis as his papal name. St. Francis of Assisi is also the patron saint of animals and nature, a facet of his life that is surrounded by folklore stories that tell of him preaching to birds and taming wolves. Folklore aside, St. Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon” speaks of his intimacy with nature and love for it. In the Canticle, Francis goes through many of the natural occurrences — moon, sun, wind, water, fire, earth — framing each part as his sister or brother. To end the Canticle, Francis takes a surprising turn and thanks God for “Sister Death.”
As someone who felt deeply connected to nature, we shouldn’t be surprised that Francis saw Death as something intimate, something natural. Francis believed that all nature was good, although some of it needed redemption. It’s said that when Francis was dying, he told death to praise God, which was his way of calling death to not be painful or harrowing, but good. He believed death to be such an ingrained part of the natural order that it too — like all of nature — harbored a sense of goodness, even though it can often be cruel and terrifying. Like the fable of St. Francis and the wolf, he saw past the cruel and hoped for the good. According to the Transitus, at his life’s end, Francis proclaimed, “Welcome, Sister Death!”
Assisi’s “sister death” is a visage of death that asks us to see death as intimate, as something we’re deeply related to. It’s not some scary, distant creature of evil like the Grim Reaper, although neither is it a happy, painless experience. It isn’t something other than us, it’s a part of us. Death is ours. If we’re looking for the face of Death in a narrative that isn’t death negative, it’s St. Francis’ Sister Death, a face that closely resembles our own.
This reframing helps us interpret life’s end as something not cold and distant, but something that is entirely human. Death, after all, is ours. And I do believe if I had entered my dance with death with a different image, a different personification of Death, my view of it wouldn’t have been so disheartening. How we view death influences how we experience it. It’s time for a new visage, and maybe St. Assisi’s figure can help.
This is the first in a series of articles dealing with the “10 Confessions” of my book. If you’d like to order the book, click on the image below:
It’s deeper than you might expect.
One of the things that I’ve feared in the release of my book is that “book writing Caleb” wouldn’t be as accepted as “blog writing Caleb.” Many of you have come to this blog over the years for a dose of light-heartedness, funeral industry talk and — every now and again — some deeper, more thoughtful posts. While I retained those facets in writing a book, this book highlights some of my deeper thoughts set to my story in death care.
Bloggers aren’t always the deepest of folk. Bloggers write about cats, and food, and gaming, and if a manual breast pump is better than an electric breast pump for the working mother. While all those things are important (what’s more important than cats?), I’ve always gravitated to gravitas.
The margins will be used.
I’ve had a number of people tell me they’ve read it a couple times BECAUSE THEY LIKE TO TORTURE THEMSELVES WITH MY BAD WRITING. No, actually despite my bad writing, I’m hoping that this book can become a companion to those who are journeying through death, dying and coming to terms with their mortality.
It doesn’t come with a funeral coupon.
Sorry. Maybe my next book will?
It’s comfortable in a number of spaces.
Our dead exist in liminality, the in-between where they are dead and living. We like binaries, the either/or of yes or no, absent or present, on or off. But out dead can both be absent and present, they are quiet and they still speak, they are both dead and live on through us.
Any book that’s written about death shouldn’t be written with easy yes or no answers about grief, death and dying. And I think this book is comfortable in different spaces. Since it’s release, it’s been featured on Vice and Country Living, ETWN (a Catholic TV station) and The Cut (a progressive news organization that offers stark contrasts to Catholic beliefs). It’s written for individuals and it has a group discussion section.
The book ends with a birth.
My wife and I can’t have kids on our own. As hard as it is to realize you can’t conceive children, infertility does allow for something: it allows you to question how much you really want children. One of the only options for people like us is adoption. And the process of adoption allowed me to pause, it allowed me to ask — really ask — if I could be a dad.
For me as a funeral director who saw too much tragedy as a young man, the process of being able to say, “Yes. I’m ready to be a dad” was only possible because I reframed death. This book is essentially the story how I become comfortable enough with death and the tragedy in the world to believe that I could not only father a child, but that the world is good enough for children.
If you’ve followed by blog, you know Caleb-the-blogger, but I’m hoping that Caleb-the-book-writer can find a space in your life as well.
If you’d like to buy the book, click the photo below:
Pre-orders are super important for newbie authors like me. If you’ve been on the fence about pre-ordering my new book, here’s an incentive: if you pre-order between now and next Monday, you’ll be entitled to FREE STUFF. No, I’m not offering a free funeral, but I am offering a free 10 part video series on Death Spirituality (promo video below). The entire series is about 50 minutes long and covers ten ways that death inspires us to be more human.
So, preorder by clicking this link: http://amzn.to/2wETnHL
Take your order number and paste it here: http://bit.ly/2xcVA1p
(If you’ve already pre-ordered, enter your order number and you’ll get the video series too.)
If you do those things, you’ll be entitled to 50 minutes of me talking about how death and mortality inspire us to a more authentic, generous and empathetic self.