Fear of Death
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:
Today’s guest post comes from the innovative Jeff Staab. Jeff was a funeral director for 20 years; and eventually translated that experience to his entrepreneurial enterprise “Cremation Solutions”. Jeff has produced the fringe Personal Urns and has recently introduced the beautiful and innovative “Your Touch Portraits.” Jeff brings a creative spark to the funeral industry. Check out his line and give him a “Like” on Facebook.
Sometimes during our lives, there are occasions when realizations hit us so suddenly and with such force that we’re left feeling dumbfounded. In one such instance, a funeral director friend was discussing a family’s loss with them when he came to the abrupt realization that he was terribly uncomfortable with the idea of his own mortality. He worried that as long as he held this discomfort, it would come across to the families he spoke with.
When he talks with the distraught families who have come to him for comfort and guidance, they will be able to sense, at least on some level, that he hasn’t even come to terms with his own mortality. How would he be able to help them? And what business does he have in providing them with advice in dealing with their loved one’s demise?
Turns out that many funeral directors have not made any of their own plans to die. I was at a recent presentation in a room of a hundred or so funeral directors and the presenter asked how many in the room had made their own pre-arrangements. Only a handful of hands went up! You would think that being reminded of death everyday would cause some insightful planning. Funeral directors deal with the subject of death for a living, but many of them are discomfited by talking about their own deaths.
Most often, people who are bothered by the thought of their mortality and haven’t considered what happens after death aren’t going to feel okay talking about it. Discuss it with your own loved ones, plan out your personal funeral or draw up a living will. When families come into your funeral home for guidance, ask them what they believe happens after death. Many will feel comfort and relief at discussing it with you. This can also help you be more compassionate and sensitive toward them while they’re planning their loved one’s funeral. In the end planning your own funeral can only help you relate to the families you serve every day.
Unfortunately, the topic of death is a taboo in modern society, particularly in the Western world. One may occasionally hear such things discussed briefly during religious services, but other than that, it’s something that we’re taught not to think or speak openly about. Regardless of this taboo, death is natural and it inevitably happens to everyone, so it’s good to consider the topic of your own death in order to help yourself, and therefore others, come to terms with it. Here are some of the things that you might want to consider.
Unease With Your Mortality
There are many reasons for being ill-at-ease with the idea of dying. Maybe you went through something traumatic and life-altering like an accident. Maybe death was never spoken of in your family. Perhaps, as is often the case, your particular faith paints death in a negative and fear-ridden light. Before you can accept the fact of your own mortality, it’s important to identify why you’re uncomfortable with it in the first place.
What Happens When You Die?
People fear what they don’t understand, and the topic of death is not immune from this fact. Most people fear dying because they feel uncertain about what happens afterward. Therefore, the most common reaction is to ignore the question entirely and resign yourself to crossing that bridge when you get to it. Although it may be uncomfortable or confusing, thinking about what happens after death can be excellent brain exercise. Ask your friends and loved ones what they think. This topic is also richly discussed both in books and online and can offer some helpful ideas and insights. Similarly, you can discuss it with a pastor or other religious advisor.
Are You Comfortable Speaking About Your Own Death?
When you have a set idea of what happens after your own death, you’ll be better equipped to handle losses in your own life as well as others. Individuals who have beliefs about what comes after are better able to cope with death than those who have no such beliefs. In many cases, the hardest part of dealing with the death of a friend or loved one is facing the unknown, so having some idea can make you feel less distraught.
Studies have shown that people who are unsure of how they view death may occasionally reject their current religious beliefs. In some cases, they’ll adopt an old set of beliefs or look for another form of spiritual guidance or teaching. Some of them may turn bitter and angry while others opt to live a life in service to others by volunteering and donating money, time, advice or assistance. The thing that all of these people have in common is that they’re seeking to make sense of death and find greater meaning in being alive.
After someone makes sense of a particular experience with death, either from a religious perspective or by assigning some other meaning to it, that person is usually able to move on. Many people who have personally dealt with such grief say that there are good things about it. They got through the experience, and after great contemplation on the frailty of life and what it means to them, they came out of it with a different way of looking at that life.
I’ve often heard it said that we fear dying more than we fear death. Death takes little time, but dying … it’s unpredictable and unfamiliar and can take months and years. I think we can quell our fear of dying, but not until we recognize why we fear dying.
Here are five reasons we fear dying:
One. We’re unfamiliar with dying.
Dying used to happen inside the home, with the family acting as caregiver, the home acting as the place of death. Now, it happens in a private room in a hospital or nursing home. With death removed from our common experience, it’s unfamiliar and unknown.
Two. We fear dying in an unfamiliar place.
Seven percent of American dying and death occurs outside of home and institution. And while most of this seven percent is produced by a tragic car accident, or random heart attack, the likelihood is that our “dying in an unfamiliar place” will not be of the tragic type.
The institutionalization of medicine means that you will probably die in an institutional setting. In fact, three out of four deaths in the United States occur in a hospital or nursing home, outside of our home surrounding and outside of the comfort of our family.
Three. We fear that our dying will be alone.
Often – due to the expertise of nursing staff – family can often arrive for our death, but they miss the dying. If you have a loved one in a nursing home, I respect your decision. Yet, to be honest, one of the hardest parts of my job is simply walking through nursing homes and seeing all the aging in crowded loneliness.
Four. We Don’t Know our Caregivers
With institutional dying, we have professional caregivers who do an outstanding job; but, these caregivers are not our loved ones, farther making our surroundings unfamiliar. I think we need to remember that the true professional caregivers are our loved ones and family members.
Five. We fear being a burden to our families
And this is perhaps the fundamental fear that lies at the heart of the problem. We think that by removing ourselves from our families (via entrance into a nursing home or retirement community), we relieve the burden; but YOU ARE NOT A BURDEN. Your dying doesn’t burden family, it’s what creates family. It allows us to love, it allows us to be a caretaker, and it allows us to let the dying die in a familiar place.
Over the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating why the West (America, Europe, etc.) has so much aversion to death, while other — less “developed — cultures see death as less alien. I’ve come up with two major reasons:
Our modern world takes death care away from families and puts it in the hands of “professionals”, thus industrializing death. Instead of the dying dwelling at our homes, we give them to nursing homes. For more of my thoughts on this, here’s an article I wrote.
The modern world also likes providing answers to life’s questions. So when death comes with its silence and mystery, we are rendered uncomfortable.
Two. We lack ritual. There’s three reasons why there’s a lack of ritual:
1.) We tend to be individualistic, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it produces a lack of community.
2). We tend to dislike tradition.
3.) We are becoming post-religious.
The following is my (rather poor) attempt to explain why the lack of ritual increases our aversion to death.
Muscle memory is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Muscle memory is what enables musicians to thoughtlessly play complicated music with near perfection.
Muscle memory is the product of laborious habit that makes incredibly difficult tasks seem like minutia.
I just came back from indoor rock climbing.
I’ve seen athletic and strong newbies come to the gym and they look like fools trying to climb routes. Falling down on their bums, scraping their arms up and getting all nervous when they get to the top of the route.
Climbing is both strength and technique muscle memory. And while newbies may be strong and athletic, if they don’t know how to move their bodies on the wall, they’re destined to fall and fail.
Grief is similar. The walls of bereavement are very intimidating to even the spiritually and psychologically strong. It doesn’t matter how whole you are, you will fall and you will fail.
Unless you enter through the trodden paths of ritual.
The muscle memory of grief is ritual. Ritual allows us to take the incredibly difficult task of mourning and find a way to persevere, even when it seems we shouldn’t.
Muscle memory is usually something you or I create through practice. I climb routes at the climbing gym, my muscles get used to moving a certain way.
You practice the guitar day in and day out and your fingers move like jazz.
This is where the whole muscle memory analogy starts to fall apart when we relate it to grief.
While a professional’s muscle memory is something he or she created, death ritual muscle memory is something our community has created and it can only be “learned” within community.
You didn’t create it. It’s something we inherit … or something we can join.
This from Alla Bozarth in “Life Is Goodbye, Life is Hello: Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss”:
Funerals are the rituals we create to help us face the reality of death, to give us a way of expressing our response to that reality with other persons, and to protect us from the full impact of the meaning of death for ourselves.
The problem is this: so many of us have disconnected ourselves from community, tradition and a religion that we’ve never received the graces of grief ritual.
If we have community in place,
if we embrace tradition in times of death
and we’re willing to involve the motion and movement of religion,
we may find life and meaning in a task that many onlookers see as insurmountable.
Ritual doesn’t allow you to overcome grief (grief may never be overcome). It doesn’t allow you to work through your grief faster. Nor does make death more tolerable. And it certainly won’t make you a “professional.”
Ritual allows you to confront a seemingly impossible task in the context of community.
Why is the West so adverse to death? Because devoid of ritual, confronting death is like asking me to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.