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.
Join My Book Launch Team
Authors and their books are similar to Tinkerbell. We can’t just survive on our own power. We’ve got to have people who believe in us in order to survive. Without that belief, without people buying our words, we enter the dark hole of oblivion.
I’m about a month away from the official release of my book, and I need advocates to join my Launch Team who will help me believe my words into existence. Here’s how the Launch Team works. If you sign up for my Launch Team, you’ll get:
1. Inclusion in an exclusive and secret Facebook group where I’ll be doing regular Q&As about the book (the Facebook group link will be sent to you when you sign up for the launch team). I WILL ANSWER ALL THE QUESTIONS!
2. You’ll receive early access to my entire book. We can talk about what you liked, loved and didn’t like about my book in the Facebook group.
3. A free fanny pack with my face on it.
4. The satisfaction of believing me and my book into existence.
HERE’S WHAT I’M ASKING IN RETURN:
1.) If you join the Launch Team and haven’t pre-ordered the book, please do (because pre-orders ignite excitement in the publishing world).
2.) Once I give you access to the advanced reader, read the book.
3. Leave a review on Amazon on the release date of September 26, 2017.
4. If you like the book, share the love on Instagram, Facebook or wherever else you find yourself on social media.
So, that’s the deal. It’s not a huge commitment, I’m just asking for your soul! Bwahahahah. No, seriously. I do need your help and would appreciate any help you can give me.
UPDATE: The launch team is full. Thanks for your interest!
No worries, friends, I didn’t solicit a random corpse to *play* the dead person in this video. The esteemed actress was none other than my wife, who willingly agreed to play the part because she really, really, really loves me (and I promised her infinite back rubs for the next calendar year).
With that aside, here’s the promo video for my book. It captures the heart of my words.
Love you all and thanks helping me launch this book and its message into the world.