Mortality up close and personal

by Pablo Garcia

One of the things that I love about being a writer is that no experience is wasted.  The mundane, the painful, the joyous, the shocking, the quiet…every moment has something to teach us about reality, and can give us a touchstone of truth that will be the foundation of our fantasies.  Even the darkest times can give us amazing stories.

Let me give you an example.

The first year we lived in Chicago, I worked for a funeral home as a “Family Services Counselor.” The title makes it sound like the job I wanted it to be: being a resource for the families after the funeral to make sure their continued needs were met.  In reality, though, the title was what most terms in the funeral industry are: a pretty label on a not so pretty reality.  Basically I was in sales.  I was supposed to use the recent experiences of the bereaved as leverage to sell them pre-need funerals.  Now mind, I think pre-need funerals are a Good Thing.  Funerals are expensive, stressful, expensive, bewildering, expensive, complicated, and expensive.  It is the last thing people who have suffered a loss should have to deal with, and the first thing they have to think about…and fight about…and pay for…if things haven’t been previously addressed.  I believe in this service.  But trying to coax people into it felt ghoulish to me.  It wasn’t the only reason I only lasted a year before I quit, but it was a big reason.

And yet, to this day, that year of misery is still giving me material for stories.  There was the funeral of a three month old baby that died of SIDS, and what it was like for me to see that when I myself was pregnant with my daughter.  There was the man dying of cancer whom I met while his family made arrangements, who had sunken cheeks and wide, glassy eyes, who was in a bright white hospital room with buzzing fluorescent lights and a septic smell.  There was the brother who described in frank, flat terms what it was like to find his sister dead in a pool of blood after an overdose, and how he kept her 13 year old son from seeing her.  I saw countless death certificates, autopsy reports, and bodies laid out in caskets post-embalming and on long silver tables pre-embalming.  Bits and pieces have been finding their way into my stories ever since.

It’s hard to look at tough times as a mine for future fiction, but sometimes that knowledge helps me stick it out.  Bad childhoods, bad relationships, bad career choices.  Live it up, then write it down.

Our Rejection of Death

mother in mourning

Once upon a time, post-mortem photography was very common.  Photographs were expensive, so often these images were the only ones families had of their lost loved ones.  Infant mortality rates were very high, so a lot of these pictures, like the one above, are of babies or young children.  I find this image to be particularly striking because of the look on the mother’s face.  The living portrayed usually have neutral expressions, a necessity for producing a good picture since the exposure time needed was so long that movement would blur the image.  This woman’s palpable sorrow is rare, and deeply moving.  You can feel her grief.

Nowadays, many people react to these images with revulsion, finding them ghoulish, even disgusting.  And I think that says far more about us than it does about our predecessors.  Time was, the care of the dead was an intimate family affair.  The family would wash and clothe the body, and lay it out for viewing within their own home, often in the parlor.  Nowadays, the dead are whisked away, embalmed in cold sterile rooms by strangers, and  laid out in “parlors” devoid of any warmth or personality.  When I worked for a funeral home some years ago, I noticed that the funeral directors would lay the bodies out in the designated rooms sometimes as much as a day ahead of time.  The dead weren’t people, they were props; filled with chemicals to delay decay, injected with silicone to plump out faces made gaunt by sickness, painted to look pretty, to look like the photographs the families supplied. Ironic, the modifications made in a vain attempt to make the deceased look like “themselves.”

We want to distance ourselves from death, to tuck the dying away in hospitals, to sculpt our dead and our rituals in such a way that keeps the dead as “other.”  Why would we take pictures of the dead?  That’s not our grandmother/mother/child.  It’s “disrespectful,” I suspect because we aren’t supposed to remember people in death, we’re supposed to remember them in life, to photograph them in life.

If we can keep death within its boundaries and out of our everyday lives, then maybe, just maybe, we won’t die.

And yet we will.  Sterilizing our lives, shooting it full of chemicals, plumping our features in a vain attempt to chase our lost youth…ultimately none of this will keep our decomposition at bay.  And when we treat death as a horror to be shoved away instead of a reality to be ultimately embraced, we rob ourselves of fully embracing, and being fully embraced by, our loved ones, even in death.